Comcast Expands Access to Internet Essentials

Decision responds to critics, comes as feds consider proposed merger.

Comcast is lowering barriers to its “Internet Essentials” program that makes cheap web acess available to low-income families — for the first time letting families enroll even if they have a past-due balance with the company.

Although the company has touted the increasing reach of the program, it has come under criticism in recent months for barriers that kept broadband Internet service beyond the reach of many families.

Newsworks Holly Otterbein reported on those barriers in March:

Emaleigh Doley, a block captain in the city’s Germantown section, says many of her neighbors need a low-priced broadband service such as Internet Essentials. But there are “barriers of entry,” she says.

For instance, she points out, current Comcast customers aren’t eligible for Internet Essentials. A low-income family has to cancel service for 90 days to get the reduced rate.

Critics say there are other barriers: You can’t get Internet Essentials if you have an overdue bill with Comcast. You can’t fully complete an application for the program over the phone. And you must have a school-aged child to be eligible.

Some of those barriers remain in place after today’s announcement, which came from Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen and Georgia’s First Lady Sandra Deal. But here is what is happening, according to a company press release:

• “Families who are approved for Internet Essentials between August 4th and September 20th, 2014 will receive up to six months of Internet service.” First-timers get a half-year of completely free service, in other words.

• Comcast also announced an amnesty program for certain low-income families who could qualify for Internet Essentials, but have a past due balance. Customers who have an outstanding bill that is more than one year old are now eligible for the program. Comcast will offer amnesty for that debt for the purpose of connecting to Internet Essentials, so long as the customer meets all the other eligibility criteria.

Internet Essentials was created as part of Comcast’s purchase of NBC-Unviersal, and it’s probably no coincidence that today’s move to ease access to the program comes as federal officials decide whether they’ll approve the company’s merger with Time Warner Cable — as well as any conditions they’ll impose on that merger.

But if Comcast has ulterior motives, Internet Essentials has still provided web access to families that might not otherwise have it at home. In Philadelphia, officials say, the program now has 11,000 families enrolled.