Comcast Makes Slight Improvements To Its Broadband Program For Low-Income Households

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which offers affordable broadband access to some low-income households, has long been considered window dressing for regulators and lawmakers whenever the company has to show that it does something not-horrible for the community. Today, Comcast announced a pair of significant improvements to Essentials, while launching a pilot program that could result in expanded eligibility.

The first big change to Essentials is a boost in speed. Users of the service had been limited to 5Mbps downstream, only 1/5 of the FCC’s current definition of what it considers “broadband.” While Essentials won’t get the full boost to 25Mbps to meet that standard, Comcast is doubling the speed to 10Mbps, which should allow an entire family to enjoy most of what the Internet has to offer without interruption.

Existing customers will just need to restart their modems in order to access the improved speeds, says Comcast.

The second improvement for Essentials users is that they will be given access to free wireless routers. That could help customers overcome a minor cost hurdle and improve a household’s access to broadband.

We have confirmed with Comcast that the routers included in the Essentials offer are not the company’s WiFi routers that also create public WiFi hotspots for Comcast customers. These routers will only provide access for the account holders, according to a company rep.

These two changes don’t address perhaps the biggest criticism of Essentials — its strict eligibility requirements. The program currently limits eligibility to households with at least one child who can participate in the national school lunch program. Thus, households with pre-school age children, grown children, or no children at all have been omitted. This includes the elderly, many of whom — especially in urban areas — live at or near the poverty line and often have little to no Internet access.

Regulators in California wanted Comcast to restructure its eligibility requirements in order to gain local approval for its attempted acquisition of Time Warner Cable, but Comcast resisted. And now that the TWC merger has failed, it looked like Comcast had little incentive to alter its eligibility standards.

However, Comcast is going to test an Essentials program for elderly customers in Palm Beach County, Florida. The company says more pilot programs are coming, but has not provided additional details.

Comcast critics are responding cautiously to today’s announcement.

“For years, thousands of community members have pushed Comcast to expand and improve Internet Essentials for the millions of Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide,” says Hannah Sassaman, Policy Director, Media Mobilizing Project, a Philadelphia organization that has been highly critical of Comcast.

While Sassaman applauds Comcast for the improvements, she cautions that “charity isn’t the same as change. If Comcast wants to break the digital divide for everybody, they need to remove all other barriers to entry for all low income consumers, and commit to increasing speeds and decreasing costs for the millions on the wrong side of the digital divide.”