Comcast yesterday announced a few changes to its Internet Essentials program. The program is, in theory, great. It aims to provide broadband internet access to low-income households, allowing families to stay connected to critical jobs, education, government and social services, and social media just like everyone else. And while Comcast is indeed taking baby steps to let more families access Internet Essentials, they are mainly taking great strides to shout aloud about every incremental, insufficient change in the hopes that regulators will nod along.
Just before filing their official merger paperwork with the FCC, Comcast made a big deal of announcing that their Internet Essentials program had reached 1 million people. Today, they say the program reaches 1.4 million individuals in 350,000 families.
Comcast also announced two big promotions related to the program. The first is that that new families who sign up now will get “up to” six months of service for free. The second is that they will in some circumstances waive the “no prior unpaid balance with Comcast” condition for enrolling. Comcast will provide amnesty for any past-due bill more than one year old for a family that wants to sign up for Internet Essentials, as long as they meet the other eligibility criteria.
Would-be Internet Essentials subscribers whose old unpaid Comcast bill is less than a year old, however, will have to work out a payment plan with Comcast to pay the old debt before they can enroll. (Of course, that means it might make more financial sense for a family with a 10- or 11-month-old unpaid debt just to wait two more months and then call Comcast.)
Although there are reasons to be cynical about Comcast’s claims, the expansion of Internet Essentials really is great news for those 350,000 families. These days internet access is vital to doing almost everything, from applying for a job to staying in touch with your kids’ school. Expanding broadband access to low-income Americans is absolutely crucial to helping families connected and successful as the 21st century marches on.
But Comcast’s rosy promises about expanding the program still aren’t bringing it where it needs to be. Granting amnesty for old past-due bills is great — but overdue bills aren’t the only, or even the biggest, stumbling block for many families who could benefit from Internet Essentials.
Back in March, outreach workers who specialize in helping low-income families access services told Consumerist that the two biggest challenges for getting families enrolled are actually other requirements. The first big block is that new subscribers to Internet Essentials must not have had any Comcast package in the past 90 days. Because there are basically never different, competing cable services to call, that means a family wishing to enroll in Internet Essentials must first spend at least three months without any service at home at all.
The second challenge is getting connected. Internet Essentials has a different phone number and website from Comcast’s regular customer service. When consumers who hear about “the cheap internet” call Comcast’s regular customer service line, they usually get sold a low-level “standard” package instead of getting redirected to call the other number. And having been sold that package, even if they cancel it a few days later, resets that 90-day no-service window.
Even with successful enrollments on the rise, though, and even removing some of the roadblocks, Internet Essentials isn’t really about helping low-income families with mediocre broadband. It’s all about helping Comcast.
From Comcast’s perspective, the Internet Essentials program is a very low-cost way to make individuals and federal regulators alike look favorably on their business. It’s another tool in the toolbox Comcast uses to explain why they should be allowed to take over Time Warner Cable — and maybe everything else, too.