Cable giant Comcast is extending its program to give low-income households cheap broadband internet access, as part of a public relations campaign leading up to the possible merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Almost as if running for office, Comcast needs to convince industry regulators and the public that the possible Comcast/TWC merger -- which would create a TV, media, and internet conglomerate covering nearly a third of the U.S. -- would be beneficial to consumers. Part of that campaign involves proving to regulators and lawmakers that Comcast has met the obligations imposed on it as part of the company's previous merger with NBCUniversal in 2011.

It's not a coincidence that the announcement comes days after Senator Al Franken of Minn. wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission's chairman Tom Wheeler, accusing Comcast of failing to meet its previous obligations and criticizing the proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. "I am concerned that the proposed acquisition could result in higher prices, fewer choices, and even worse service for consumers," wrote Franken. "To the extent that Comcast has a history of breaching its legal obligations to consumers, such history should be taken into account when evaluating Comcast's proposal for future market expansion."

One of those legal obligations was a requirement to expand broadband access to low-income families -- a measure that is important to many Latino families affected by the so-called "Digital Divide."

That term describes the gap in quality internet access that exists between low-income, underprivileged, and rural Americans and those who have access and can afford broadband. For many Latinos in the U.S., the digital divide is a daily problem, making it harder, for example, for children to complete homework assignments that require internet access or cutting off Latinos from the career and business opportunities the internet brings. A Pew Internet and American Life survey last year found that only 53 percent of Hispanic families in America have broadband access at home.

Comcast said its low-income access plan, called the Internet Essentials program, connected its millionth user in October, according to the Washington Post. And in a press release on Tuesday, the cable behemoth announced it would be extending the program in Fresno and Elk Grove California, providing $150,000 in grants to community partners like the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Center for Multicultural Cooperation, and the Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation, among others, to create "a continuum of connectivity" or "learning zones" with wired after-school programs, libraries, computing centers, and along with broadband-connected schools. 

The company also announced that the nationwide Internet Essentials program would continue indefinitely. Comcast made a three-year commitment to regulators in 2011 when it acquired NBC Universal, but will continue to provide low-cost broadband to qualifying households from now on. The company says it has connected 300,000 families, totaling about 1.2 million people, to the internet in the first three years of the program.

Internet Essentials from Comcast provides broadband for $9.95 per month plus tax, along with the option to buy an internet-ready computer for under $150 and free digital literacy training in both English and Spanish languages. Qualifying families have to have at least one child eligible for the National School Lunch Program, which is how Comcast judges if families are poor enough for the discount rate.

Comcast says Internet Essentials, which came out of the 2011 deal with the FCC to allow its purchase of NBCUniversal, has become largest broadband expansion program -- and, of course, the implication is that allowing the Time Warner Cable merger will expend the program that much further -- but it's not the only internet provider with discount broadband for low-income households.

As part of its consumer offerings from the very start, for example, Google Fiber provides a basic, 5mpbs connection for free for at least seven years -- and possibly indefinitely -- after consumers pay for the installation (which is $300, and can be spread out to $25 per month over the first year, and completely free after that). And Google doesn't require customers to prove they can't afford the expensive tier, or to prove they have children in school getting lunch assistance, in order to get free basic broadband.