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Comcast boosts internet speeds for its cheapest plan to aid homebound students

Facing pressure from activists and elected officials, Comcast Corp. said it will increase internet speeds for low-income families and postpone fees on heavy data users.

A 2004 file image of a Comcast van.
A 2004 file image of a Comcast van.Read moreTom Gralish / File Photograph

Facing pressure from activists and elected officials, Comcast Corp. said it will increase internet speeds for low-income families and postpone fees on heavy data users as consumers increasingly rely on broadband during the pandemic.

The Philadelphia cable giant said this week that it would improve its low-income service, called Internet Essentials, for the second time in 12 months since the coronavirus closed schools and offices. The company has enrolled tens of thousands of Americans for free or low-cost internet since the crisis began, but critics have said the bare-bones broadband hasn’t been sufficient for some students learning from home.

Starting in March, Internet Essentials customers will see download speeds double to 50 megabits-per-second (mbps) and uploads increase from 3 to 5 mbps. Download speeds reflect how quickly you can receive data, such as loading web pages or streaming videos. An upload speed is how fast you can send data, such as using a video chat to talk to someone.

» READ MORE: Activists call for Comcast and other providers to guarantee faster, free internet for students

Comcast will still charge the same rate for the service, which is $9.95 a month or free for families enrolled in PHLConnectED, a partnership between the city, School District, most charter schools, Comcast and others. School district officials say that 5,528 Philadelphia School District families are receiving free Internet Essentials through PHLConnectED.

“We’ve been on a mission to address digital inequities in under-resourced communities through Internet Essentials for a decade and there’s never been a greater need than now,” Dave Watson, president and CEO of Comcast’s cable unit, said in a statement. Comcast launched the program back in 2011 as a condition to get federal regulators to approve the company’s purchase of NBCUniversal. Comcast has continued the reduced-cost broadband program beyond its three-year commitment that would have ended in 2014.

In a separate announcement Wednesday, Comcast said it would delay plans to charge Northeast customers new fees for heavy data usage, under an agreement with Pennsylvania Attorney Josh Shapiro. The company initially planned to limit customers to 1.2 terabytes per month and bill them $10 for every extra 50 gigabytes used — unless they upgraded to an unlimited plan. Now, Comcast will postpone the impending charges till July amid concerns that the policy would raise cable bills for families during the pandemic.

» READ MORE: Comcast will charge customers more for heavy internet usage starting next year (from November 2020)

Taken together, this week’s announcements and the continued pressure on Comcast reflected the increasing importance of home internet, from an amenity to “an essential utility,” broadband experts and academics said.

“It’s really about broadband being an equity issue, a racial equity issue, and income equity issue,” said Alvaro Sanchez, a Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia analyst who has studied the digital divide.

Melanie Harris, the Philadelphia School District’s chief information officer, commended Comcast on the speed boost.

“While the district is looking forward to getting students back into classrooms, we know that our families will still be engaged in remote learning,” Harris said in a statement. “These higher speeds will help ensure that our students, especially those in households with multiple students, are able to engage and participate in all remote learning activities.”

Consumer and education advocates welcomed the news of faster speeds, but vowed to push Comcast to do more. While advocates and academics largely agreed that doubling download speeds would be a big help, some questioned whether the new upload speeds of 5 mbps would be enough for households with multiple students making video calls.

“I am glad that Comcast has finally responded to community demands, but a year into the pandemic and with a generation of children having their education rely on internet access, it’s clear this is just the start,” City Councilmember Helen Gym said in a statement.

Some students and educators have said slow internet has been a problem in the virtual classroom.

Lauren Overton, principal of Penn Alexander, virtually sat in on a recent math class at the K-8 public school in West Philadelphia. One student, a child whose family relies on Internet Essentials, raised a hand but struggled to be understood because of a spotty internet connection and audio that kept cutting in and out.

“It’s tough to see as an administrator,” Overton said. “I’m hopeful that this increase in speed will allow students to access school with more consistency, and without disruption.”

Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas said the company hasn’t seen a high volume of complaints about Internet Essentials and said company officials can help customers who contact them. He noted that external factors could affect an internet connection, such as the quality of laptops students use or where a family places the modem in the household.

“We’re continually improving our Internet Essentials program and have increased speeds multiple times, including now to 50/5 [mbps], all while keeping the price at $9.95/month for the last decade,” he said in a statement. “These speeds support multiple concurrent videoconferencing sessions and enable family members to learn and work from home.”

Comcast’s previous Internet Essentials speeds matched the Federal Communications Commission’s current definition of broadband, though critics — including FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel — have said that definition is outdated. A November report from CableLabs, a cable industry research group, found those speeds could support five concurrent conference calls, though the study didn’t account for external factors such as where a modem is placed.

Some critics pointed to the popular video conference service Zoom, which says users need upload speeds of 3 mbps to send a call to multiple people in 1080p high definition. A household trying to send more than one video call at that quality would need at least 6 mbps, a Zoom spokesperson confirmed, but she noted that more than 90% of calls placed over Zoom are typically run at lower quality.

“That upload speed is really, really crucial, and 3 to 5 [mbps] isn’t much of a boost,” said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy council for Consumer Reports, a pro-consumer advocacy group.

Comcast has taken other steps to close the digital divide. The company said Tuesday that it had installed hundreds of “Lift Zones” in community centers, including 33 in Philadelphia, where students can access WiFi in safe spaces. The company plans to launch 1,000 Lift Zones by the end of the year. In Philadelphia, the School District has distributed tens of thousands of Chromebooks to students to promote remote learning, with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts donating $5 million to help pay for them.

Comcast said it has signed up millions of customers through the national program, and connected 280,000 people in Philadelphia from 2011 to August 2019, but the company does not share current enrollment numbers.

Genesis Mejia relies on Internet Essentials to complete her schoolwork at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, which like all Philadelphia School District schools has been fully remote since March. Mejia loves school, but it’s been a struggle.

“There’s three of us in school at the same time, and sometimes it just stops working,” said Mejia, a junior.

She was delighted to hear the news that speeds would increase.

“I am really glad they’re taking the initiative; it’s needed,” she said. “I just hope that it’s enough for us to do what we need to do.”

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.