Comcast said 3 million additional homes are now eligible for Internet Essentials, the cable operator's program for low-income households, after extending access to all seniors and to people with disabilities within its cable service footprint.
The expansion includes homes that are on some form of federal assistance, including low-income seniors on Medicaid and those receiving help from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) initiatives.
Comcast said this eligibility expansion is the biggest ever for Internet Essentials, a program launched in 2011 as a voluntary condition of its acquisition of NBCUniversal.
Speaking Tuesday on a press call, David Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Comcast/NBCU, noted that the company has expanded eligibly of the program 11 times so far. After an initial focus on pre-school and national school lunch programs, Internet Essentials has since expanded to include residents of public housing and those receiving federal housing assistance, low-income veterans and pilot programs for low-income seniors and community college students.
"This expansion more than doubles the total eligible population of the program," Cohen said.
Comcast estimates that some 8 million individuals from 2 million households have been connected to the Internet at home over the life of the program, and that it has sold more than 100,000 subsidized PCs and invested about $650 million to reach 9.5 million people with digital literacy training at non-profit outfits.
Under the current form of Internet Essentials, eligible homes can get Internet service (15 Mbit/s downstream by 2 Mbit/s upstream) and in-home WiFi for $9.95 per month, plus access to heavily discounted computers (for just under $150). Comcast also builds in free digital literacy training in print, online and in person, both in English and Spanish.
15-Meg remains "sweet spot" for program
Comcast is expanding eligibility of Internet Essentials, but did not opt to bump the speeds of that service in this round of enhancements.
When it introduced Internet Essentials back in 2011, the offering provided just 1.5 Mbit/s down and upload speeds of 384 kbit/s. In addition to adding in-home WiFi, Comcast has upgraded speeds four times during the life of the program. Its current capabilities, at 15 Mbit/s down and 2 Mbit/s up, are short of the FCC's current speed definition of "broadband": 25 Mbit/s down by 3 Mbit/s up.
While making note of past speed upgrades for the program, Cohen said the current speed levels are "more than sufficient for our Internet Essentials customers to do everything on the Internet that they need to do," noting that those speeds are ample for video streaming to multiple devices in the home and for the needs of any education program.
"With all due respect to the FCC, I think the judgements they have made around what it is that represents 'broadband' are as much politically driven as they are substantively driven," Cohen said. "And there's no suggestion in any FCC proceeding that 15-Meg down speeds are not more than sufficient to be able to provide a high-quality Internet experience to any home that has that level of speed."
Cohen didn't rule out that Comcast would review and alter the speeds of the program as necessary.
"We think we're in a sweet spot right now with the program, at 15-Meg down, but if that changes, as we've already done four times previously, we'll take a look at the speeds again."
Earlier on the call, Cohen also downplayed the impact of smartphones and cellular services as an alternative to wired in-home broadband.
"I would argue that a smartphone is just not adequate for a student to complete many homework assignments or to write a college essay, and it's not good enough for an adult to create a resume and apply for a job," he said.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading