Comcast Raises Speeds On Low-Income Broadband Program Following Baltimore Student Protests

·3 min read

A grassroots effort led by teenage activists in Baltimore has successfully pressured Comcast Corporation (NASDAQ: CMCSA) to alter its Internet Essentials broadband program designed for lower-income households.

What Happened: When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of schools and the abrupt pivot to remote learning, many Baltimore-area students complained they were at a learning disadvantage when using Comcast's Internet Essentials program, which the company introduced in 2011 as a $9.95-per-month offering for families that qualified for government subsidized programs.

The students complained the Internet Essentials broadband speeds of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mpbs for uploads were too slow to accommodate successful distance learning, and the service had problems accommodating multiple users in a single household.

A student-run advocacy group, Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society (SOMOS), was launched last spring to address the lethargic broadband issues, and over the course of 2020 they began to get their voices heard by Baltimore's elected officials and community leaders.

What started as a local story percolated with greater intensity as several national media outlets began to pay more attention to the SOMOS complaints.

Without specifically citing SOMOS by name, Comcast announced Tuesday that it was upgrading the Internet Essentials download speeds from 25 Mbps to 50 Mbps and the upload speeds from 3 Mbps to 5 Mbps.

The changes, which will take effect on March 1, will not bring any additional costs to existing customers, and Comcast said this marks the sixth time in 10 years that broadband speeds for Internet Essentials customers increased while subscription costs remained the same.

In announcing the broadband speed upgrade, Comcast also highlighted its 60-day free introduction for its xFi and xFi Advanced Security product features to Internet Essentials customers.

The company also announced an acceleration of its rollout timeline for more than 1,000 "Lift Zones" to provide free WiFi in community centers across the country and previewed $3.5 million in commitments to nonprofits including Goodwill Industries International and YWCA to help "more people of color gain the education and critical workforce development skills needed to access career opportunities in media and technology."

Why It's Important: No company likes to be Goliath in a media-hyped David-versus-Goliath story, and Comcast's response was greeted by SOMOS' young activists and their allies with enthusiasm. Baltimore teacher and SOMOS adviser Franca Muller Paz told the Baltimore Sun that Comcast's decision was an "enormous victory against a multibillion-dollar corporation," while student and SOMOS member Aliyah Abid told Buzzfeed News the announcement was "very exciting for all of us — like, jumping for joy type of news."

Still, there has been grumbling that Comcast can be doing more, with some Baltimore legislators and community leaders calling for the company to increase the program's download cap to 100 Mbps and its upload cap to 25 Mbps.

What's Next: The Baltimore Sun reports that roughly 104,000 Baltimore residents, or more than one out of every six people, rely on Internet Essentials for their broadband service, with two city council members proposing a municipally run alternative to Comcast's Internet service, which has a monopoly in Baltimore.

From a P.R. perspective, the company is framing itself as a leader in addressing what Comcast Cable President and CEO Dave Watson defined as "a mission to address digital inequities in under-resourced communities.

"As a media and technology company, we have a unique opportunity to provide meaningful connection to the communities we serve — whether that's through access to the Internet, programs to support creativity and digital literacy and skills training for young people, or workforce development opportunities for adults," Watson said.

"Our commitment has never been stronger, and we are dedicated to leveling the playing field and making a lasting impact for generations to come."

A Comcast Xfinity store. Courtesy photo.

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