(TNS) — When the Reading School Board voted to start the school year as a remote learning experience, it brought to light the lack of broadband internet access in the city.

The district made some moves to provide broadband internet to students like adding outdoor Wi-Fi to 14 district buildings.

Wednesday night, the school board took a big step in closing the digital divide. The board voted 9-0 to spend up to $700,000 to provide broadband internet access to Reading students.

“It’s a unique agreement that Comcast came forward with two months of free broadband internet in this agreement,” said Dr. Khalid N. Mumin, superintendent. “It helps us out tremendously.” The price tag will be no more than $700,000 and will connect as many as 10,000 homes, Mumin said. The cost will be $9.95 a month for each participating household.

“This is an opportunity where we are advertising for partners and donors which will bring the (cost) down,” he said. “This is a huge move for us to provide access to our families. We’re excited about it.”

Board member Becky Ellis was pleased to see the action taken.

“It is my hope that this service agreement with Comcast will be effective in narrowing the digital divide within the school district,” she said.

Reading ranks as one of the most connected cities in the state, 99.2 percent of the city has internet access, according to BroadbandNow.com, a website that helps consumers find and compare broadband internet service providers in their area.

However, about 32% of households in Reading do not have broadband, according to National Digital Inclusion Alliance, an organization that advocates for home broadband access, public broadband access, personal devices and local technology training and support programs.

Reading resident Christopher Ellis, husband of school board member Becky Ellis, started a petition to have Comcast provide free access for Reading. The petition had more the 1,200 signatures.

He was pleased with the board’s vote.

“This is a win for the education of our city's children, and I hope this shows the importance of low-cost or free publicly held Wi-Fi,” he said.

Ellis plans to continue the petition with the goal of bringing free broadband internet access to all Reading residents.

Comcast announced last week it was rolling out an Internet Essentials Partnership Program to offers households low-cost, broadband internet service for $9.95 per month. The program relies on public-private partnerships to coordinate funding to help connect K-12 students to broadband internet.

“We’ve seen firsthand that low-cost internet access is an important part of improving digital equity and creating positive opportunities for low-income students and families,” Dana Strong, President of Xfinity Consumer Services, said in a press release. “Through this new partnership program, we are accelerating the efforts of cities, schools, philanthropies, nonprofits and private citizens to collaborate and open the doors of internet access for more families in need.”

Comcast made similar partnerships with schools in Chicago; Atlanta; Pittsburgh; Sacramento, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Arlington, Va. to provide more than 200,000 students with access to broadband internet.

This is how the program will work:

It will take up to four weeks for Comcast to create PIN numbers for the school district, Mumin said. The district will distribute the numbers to students when they come in to pick up their computers and the district is able to determine who needs the broadband internet he added.

The codes will be given to the families, the families will call Comcast, provide the code and a self-install kit will be shipped to the family, said Dr. Yamil Sanchez, assistant superintendent.

The district will only be billed for codes that are used, he added.

There are a few caveats.

Anyone who has had a Comcast account for the last 90 days does not qualify for the program, Sanchez said.

Sanchez added that if a person has an overdue bill with Comcast they should not cancel their account. Comcast is not shutting off service and is working with people who have overdue bills, he said.

Mumin suggested the broadband program may continue post-pandemic.

“This will take us through the school year,” he said. “It should give us enough time and space to gather more data to see if it’s something we can continue to do and sustain for future years.

“We’ll be able to have some good data to see not only if the connectivity is helpful but also if that connectivity is impacting achievement in a positive way.”

©2020 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.