Even as Comcast Corp. marketed a discounted $10-a-month Internet Essentials service to low-income families nationwide, many of the poorest residents in its headquarters city couldn't get it because Comcast didn't serve Philadelphia Housing Authority units with broadband.
In fact, many of those PHA families couldn't even get high-speed internet service, because the company that served the public housing units with cable TV, Wilco Electronic Systems Inc. of Fort Washington, hadn't upgraded its network for broadband, a PHA official said.
Now, Comcast has acquired Wilco's network, which serves 8,500 PHA housing units with about 25,000 residents, a city official said. Terms were not disclosed but PHA has also agreed to the deal.
Comcast expects to upgrade or replace the Wilco network over the next year to bring PHA units into telecom parity with the rest of Philadelphia — a city with a significant digital divide, or large percentage of poor residents without internet access. These upgrades will extend Comcast services to Bartram Village in South Philadelphia, Johnson Homes in North Philadelphia, West Park Apartments in West Philadelphia, Emlen Arms in Mount Airy, and other PHA housing developments.
Wilco "offered some internet service through a third party, but it was not broadband," Larry Redican, PHA's general counsel, said recently. "We are very excited that our residents will now have an opportunity to access Internet Essentials from Comcast. This will go a long way in bridging the digital divide."
Wilco president and founder Will Daniel said in a statement that the company was "happy to reach an agreement with Comcast that will now offer PHA residents the ability to be able to reap the benefits of the Internet Essentials program as well as many other advanced technologies."
Wilco has offered pay-TV services to the roughly 8,500 PHA housing units since the 1970s. While Comcast acquired other cable operators in Philadelphia, it did not buy Wilco, which negotiated a contract to provide telecom services to the PHA complexes.
Comcast launched the Internet Essentials program as a sweetener to the FCC to obtain approval for its NBCUniversal deal in 2011. Over the program's existence, Comcast says, 31,000 Philadelphia families have enrolled in it. Nationwide, about one million families have taken up the offer.
While Comcast initially restricted Internet Essentials to families with schoolchildren, the company has expanded it with pilot programs that encompass veterans and senior citizens. It also offers Internet Essentials to residents of public housing in areas where Comcast services are available.