Thousands of low-income children in Pima County could be eligible for free Internet access, thanks to an expanded partnership between the federal housing department and Cox Communications.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched its ConnectHome pilot program last summer. The program offers free or discounted Internet services for families with school-age children who qualify for HUD-assisted housing.

Currently the program operates in 27 cities through partnerships with various Internet service providers, nonprofits and the private sector, according to HUD.

Cox — one of ConnectHome’s participating Internet providers — has now expanded its involvement to cover its 18-state service area. That includes Arizona, where 30,600 children are eligible for the discount service.

About 6,600 households in Pima County are likely eligible, including those who use Housing Choice Vouchers — also known as Section 8 — and those living in public housing.

The package costs $9.95 a month for download speeds of up to 10 megabits per second, including installation, equipment and access to free WiFi hotspots.

With Cox’s new commitment, the Connect- Home program can now reach up to 430,000 children nationally, said Housing Secretary Julian Castro on a Thursday conference call.

The expansion could benefit 250,000 students in the U.S. and means the initiative now operates in 17 additional cities.

“We believe this work is critical right now, at a time when more than 90 percent of college applications are submitted online and when less than half of the poorest households in America have an Internet subscription at home,” Castro said. “We need to address our nation’s digital divide.”

Cox’s own discount Internet program, Connect2Compete, has connected 160,000 low-income people to the Internet since it began in 2012, Cox President Pat Esser said during the conference call.

Cox quickly joined HUD’s ConnectHome pilot program when it launched last year, he said.

The expansion to the company’s entire service area “underscores our commitment to youth and education,” Esser said.

More than half of low-income families who have received discounted Internet access through Connect2Compete said their children’s grades improved, the company says.

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at ebregel@tucson.com or 573-4233. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel