Comcast Today: With Time Warner Scrutiny Pending, Program for Poor Families Gets New Life

Internet Essentials program offers $10-a-month broadband service to the poor.

In all the talk of downsides to the Comcast-Time Warner merger, one possible upside has been overlooked: It might be a boon to poor families.

After all, the Internet Essentials program (which offers $10-a-month broadband service to those poor families) was created three years ago as a way to gain approval of the Comcast-NBCUniversal from federal regulators. Under that agreement, the program was due to end in June. Instead, Comcast vice president David L. Cohen said Tuesday afternoon that the program is being extended “indefinitely” — and that if the merger with Time Warner is approved, be available to eligible families in 19 of the nation’s 20 most-populated cities.

“Why are we doing it?” Cohen said during a conference call with reporters. “Because it’s just that important.”

Perhaps. But with federal scrutiny of the proposed merger with Time Warner loom, Tuesday’s announcement might’ve been more than coincidental. It’s a fair bet regulators might’ve required Comcast to extend the program anyway.

Cohen didn’t present Tuesday’s announcement as a pot-sweetener to federal regulators, though, but as an opportunity for current and potential customers in current Time Warner markets.

“By extending the program and continuing to make commitments, we remain firmly committed to helping low-income families get online at home and take advantage of all the Internet has to offer,” he said.

The results could be a boon to poor families. In addition to announcing the indefinite extension of the Internet Essentials program—to “bridge the digital divide,” he said—Cohen also announced that eligible families in 20 “Gold Medal” cities can get up to six months of broadband service for free if they sign up before March 18.

Those cities include Philadelphia; Baltimore; Lee, Fla.; San Francisco; and Stockton, Calif., as well as Adams County, Colo.; Atlanta, Ga.; Aurora, Colo.; Chicago, Ill.; Cicero-Berwyn, Ill.; Collier, Fla.; Denver, Colo.; Elk Grove, Calif.; Fresno, Calif.; Miami, Fla.; Palm Beach, Fla.; Pasadena, Texas; Seattle, Wash.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Tacoma, Wash.

Critics suggest the Internet Essentials program has underperformed — in Philadelphia, for example, a recent report suggested just 5 percent of eligible families were using the service. Nationally, Cohen said, 1.2 million Americans in 300,000 households have signed up for the service, though up to 2.6 million Americans meet income standards to participate.

Cohen dismissed the critics. “It’s taken us 15 years to get 40 percent penetration (of the potential broadband market) on the entire population,” he said. “The program is only two and a half years old. We’re just beginning to get our feet beneath us.”

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was on the call to praise Cohen’s announcement, saying that 30 percent of Philadelphians don’t have home Internet access — a disadvantage when it comes to doing schoolwork or applying for jobs. “We still have more work to do,” Nutter said.

And he unabashedly threw his support behind the merger. “I’m a strong supporter of the Comcast-Time Warner cable merger,” Nutter said. “I have to remind folks I am not on commission at Comcast.”

Cohen also said Comcast was on the verge of a “multiyear, multimillion-dollar” partnership with the Khan Academy, which produces YouTube videos offering instruction to young students, in range of topics. “We think (those resources) should be available to all families,” Cohen said, “regardless of income.”