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WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, Comcast announced that it is expanding eligibility for Internet Essentials, its low-cost broadband-adoption program, to include all qualified low-income households in the cable giant’s service areas. In a statement the company estimates that the expansion will reach an additional 3 million low-income households, “which literally doubles the total number of previously eligible households.”  

Internet Essentials offers broadband access to qualified households at a monthly rate of $9.95 plus tax. This service offers subscribers a 15-megabit-per-second downstream, 2-megabit-per-second upstream cable-modem internet connection, including home Wi-Fi and the option to purchase an internet-ready computer for $150.

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, only 42 percent of households in the lowest-income quintile have wired-home internet, compared to 83 percent in the highest-income quintile.

Free Press Policy Manager Dana Floberg made the following statement:

“We were an early critic of Comcast’s Internet Essentials, which originally was a highly restricted program that seemed designed to win political support for Comcast’s merger aspirations instead of actually helping poor people get online. But we’re encouraged to see that Comcast has transformed Internet Essentials into a program that most of the poor households in its territory can use.

“While most public-policy attention on this topic is focused on rural America, an alarming digital divide persists between rich and poor, white and non-white communities. This divide is largely the result of income inequality and systemic racism, which render home internet unaffordable in our nation’s uncompetitive broadband market. The lack of affordable offerings is why wired home-internet adoption in highest-income-quintile homes is double that of adoption in lowest-income-quintile homes.

“Comcast’s Internet Essentials expansion means that millions more low-income homes will be able to pay just under $10 per month for broadband. This is of course welcome news for those who can’t afford any internet connections. But it’s also welcome news for the millions of poor families who do count as connected, but only because one or more members subscribe to a mobile-wireless service. A robust home-broadband connection is vital in today’s always-connected age, particularly for multi-member households and households with children.

“However, as welcome as this expansion is, there’s plenty more work for Comcast, other ISPs and government to do if we are to eradicate the digital divide.

“For example, Comcast's Internet Essentials still contains a 90-day prohibition that prevents current low-income customers from switching from one of the company’s retail plans to Internet Essentials. That ban greatly reduces the number of homes that could benefit from this expansion, simply because they can’t just do without internet while they wait out the 90-day period.

“In addition, Comcast and all other ISPs can and should do plenty more to make broadband more affordable, not just for poor families but for the millions of other households that are one adverse event away from financial disaster.

“Prepaid offerings have helped millions of credit-challenged households obtain affordable mobile-wireless services, but the U.S. wired-internet market is bereft of any prepaid options. This is largely because our nation’s wired ISPs have refused to offer wholesale services to ‘virtual’ ISPs in the same way that wireless carriers resell capacity to virtual mobile carriers like Tracfone. Removing the credit-check barrier for home internet is one way to begin to overcome the systemic barrier to broadband adoption that millions of households of color face.

“And the FCC could do plenty more to close the affordability divide, though Chairman Pai seems totally and willfully ignorant of this issue. Pai’s policies have taken away low-cost fixed-home-broadband options for millions. With just a few changes, the FCC could enable households enrolled in its Lifeline program to apply their monthly discount to services like Internet Essentials, making home internet affordable for all poor people.

“Today’s news is welcome, but there’s much more work to do to solve the nation’s broadband-affordability problem. In America, a $10 monthly entry-level broadband service should be commonplace, not something available only to a subset of poor families who are able to jump through qualification hoops. We urge all ISPs, Congress, the FCC, and state and local governments to pay closer attention to the digital divides stemming from income and race, and offer solutions that will once and for all bring everyone into the digital age.”

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