Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Comcast Announces Additional Voluntary Steps to Promote Broadband Adoption, Remote Learning, and Digital Equity

Comcast launched its low-cost Internet Essentials program in 2011. Over the last decade, it has connected millions of eligible low-income families at the discounted price of $9.95 per month, provided tens of thousands of free laptops, and invested hundreds of millions to promote digital literacy.

The ongoing public health crisis has focused greater attention on digital divides, remote learning, and digital equity. Today Comcast announced additional voluntary efforts to address these concerns.

Comcast's Internet Essentials program arguably is the leading example of the broadband industry's commitment to make high-speed Internet access more affordable for low-income families, but there certainly are others.

Such programs have been highly successful. So successful, in fact, that Congress made sure to leverage them in the recently passed COVID-19 relief package.

As I described in a recent post to the Free State Foundation's blog, Congress has appropriated $3.2 billion to the FCC for an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that will provide discounts on broadband service during the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, it directed the agency to automatically approve providers offering "an established program as of April 1, 2020, that is widely available and offers internet service offerings to eligible households and maintains verification processes that are sufficient to avoid fraud, waste, and abuse."

The additional actions that Comcast announced today "to help connect as many Americans to the Internet as possible and create new opportunities for underrepresented communities through the education, resources, and skills training they need to succeed in today’s digital economy" include:

  • Increasing, automatically and at no cost, Internet Essentials downstream speeds from 25 to 50 Mbps and upstream speeds to 5 Mbps for all new and existing customers on March 1;
  • Continuing to provide 60 days of free service to new Internet Essential customers through June 30, 2021;
  • Expanding its commitment to connect Lift Zones – safe spaces at Boys & Girls Clubs and other locations where students can access free Wi-Fi – to cover 1,000 locations by the end of 2021; and
  • Providing $3.5 million in grants to "help[] more people of color gain the education and critical workforce development skills needed to access career opportunities in media and technology" as part of its $40 million pledge in 2020 to invest in partners focused on education and digital equity. Current recipients include CodePath, Genesys Works, Jobs for the Future, NPower, i.c. stars, Opportunity at Work, Goodwill Industries International, YWCA, and Philadelphia Youth Network.
As I highlighted in a May 2020 Perspectives from FSF Scholars, Comcast and other broadband providers didn't merely sign on to then-Chairman Pai's Keep Americans Connected pledge; many elected to go above and beyond the specific commitments – not terminating service to those unable to pay as a result of the pandemic, waiving late fees, and opening Wi-Fi hotspots to all Americans – set forth therein.

Providing new Internet Essentials customers with 60 days of free service was just one of the steps Comcast took at that time. Others included increasing downstream speeds from 15 to 25 Mbps, providing two months of free service to university students, and suspending data limits.

Further details on Comcast's commitment to education and digital equity are available here.