Comcast will continue to offer 60 days of free internet service for new low-income customers, as the coronavirus pandemic drags on and forces consumers to study and work from home.
The Philadelphia cable giant is extending the broadband offering through the end of the year. It was initially set to expire June 30. The company cited schools possibly relying on remote learning when they reopen in the fall.
The 60 days of free service are for customers who sign up for Comcast’s low-income broadband program, called Internet Essentials. The service costs $9.95 a month after that period and provides download speeds of 25 mbps and upload speeds of 3 mbps.
As of March 31, roughly 32,000 customers signed up for the free service during the first quarter of this year, according to an earnings report.
“Now more than ever, connectivity has become a vital tool for families to access educational resources for students, important news and information about their community and the world, telehealth applications, or to stay in touch with family and friends,” Dana Strong, president of consumer services for Comcast’s Xfinity unit, said in a statement.
The extension comes as the coronavirus continues to keep many students and employees at home, forcing them to rely on their own internet service for work and class. Thousands of students in Philadelphia were without internet access when the pandemic first hit. 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.
Still, school officials, lawmakers, and activists have asked Comcast — the nation’s largest home internet provider — to do more to help close the digital divide during the pandemic. Last month, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he asked Comcast and other internet providers to open residential WiFi networks to others so all students could learn through their laptops, but they all refused. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) signed a letter in May urging Comcast to open all WiFi hot spots for schoolchildren, too.
“Comcast has taken important steps to help Americans get connected during this global public health emergency,” the letter said. “But it can — and should — do more to help children and teachers.”
Comcast has said its residential WiFi networks were not engineered for broad public use. The company has made business and outdoor WiFi hot spots free for everyone.
“Our residential access points are designed to support our customers and their guests in the home,” Comcast spokesman John Demming said in a statement. “They are not intended for broad, public use and are not engineered to support the high volume of users that our business and outdoor hot spots can handle.”
To qualify for Internet Essentials, customers must be eligible for public assistance programs such as the National School Lunch Program, Medicaid, or SNAP. They also must not have been a Comcast internet subscriber within the last 90 days, though that restriction doesn’t apply to Philadelphians.
For the rest of the year, Comcast is waiving another requirement that typically prohibits customers with an outstanding debt from signing up for the program.