When Comcast and Kahn Academy announced a multimillion-dollar education partnership last December, the multimedia giant and the free online education provider said their team-up would help low-income families cross the digital divide and gain educational opportunities. Critics question the motives behind the partnership and say it won't give lasting help for needy kids.

Comcast's Internet Essentials program provides low-cost Internet service to families whose children qualify for the National School Lunch Program (a poverty indicator). Under the new partnership, Comcast will give financial support and public service announcements to Kahn Academy and the companies will promote each other.

Kahn Academy is nonprofit educational website founded in 2008 by Salman Kahn to offer free education resources to students and teachers. The company says it reaches about 10 million students per month.

"I realized this could be an opportunity for us to do something to reach the nearly 30 percent of Americans who don’t have broadband Internet service at home," Kahn said in an announcement of the partnership at a Silicon Valley Summit. "Lack of Internet broadband is a barrier to our mission at Khan Academy and so I’m really excited about the opportunity to work together to try and close that gap."

The families that most need Kahn Academy's free classes and education resources are disproportionately left behind because they lack Internet access, said Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen at the summit. The new partnership will help drive broadband adoption, he added. Low-income families qualify for Comcast broadband service for $9.95 per month through the Internet Essentials program, which the partnership will promote.

Slate magazine writer Danielle Kehl raises questions about the potential impact of the agreement, however. The partnership offers a new platform for luring new customers to home broadband service with the promise of free educational tools, Kehl writes. But needy families might get little benefit, for several reasons.

Internet Essentials customers get broadband speeds of up to 5 Mbps, less than Comcast's most basic package, and that might not be enough for streaming media-rich online education content. And if students leave the school lunch program, continuing their Comcast subscription will cost at least five times as much as Internet Essentials, the story said.

"Internet Essentials is not all bad, but it's definitely more of a feel-good strategy that allows Comcast to bait-and-switch new customers with discounted offerings. It's certainly not a long-term solution to America's broadband challenges," the Slate story said. "The Comcast-Khan Academy partnership certainly has potential, but a little healthy scrutiny is also in order."

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