Comcast is increasing the speed of its Internet Essentials package from 25/3 Mbps to 50/5 Mbps starting March 1, 2020 at no additional cost. The change is part of what the ISP says is a long-term commitment to digital equity, and that offering low-income households speeds above the FCC-defined minimum will help to “accelerate” those plans throughout 2021.
On one hand, it does seem like an extension of good faith to finally bring low-income households and communities decent internet. But on the other hand, it highlights how ISPs like Comcast have always had the ability to do so.
“Today’s announcement shows that Comcast can improve its service for families and community members in need, at any time,” said Devren Washington, Senior Policy Organizer of the Movement Alliance Project, in a statement. “25 Mbps isn’t enough when children, caregivers, and communities all rely on one internet connection.”
Comcast previously increased its Internet Essentials speed from 15/2 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps in March 2020 in response to the covid-19 pandemic, and initially created the low-income internet plan as part of its negotiations with federal regulators to acquire NBCUniversal. But, until that March increase, the company was providing Internet Essentials customers with broadband speeds below the FCC-defined minimum for five years.
Comcast’s announcement also, incidentally, comes nearly a week after Buzzfeed published an interview with a former Comcast employee, Chase Roper, who said the plan’s current speeds are not fast enough for students to attend class via Zoom. Video conferencing doesn’t take just a lot of download bandwidth—it takes a lot of upload bandwidth too.
“With spending all our time on Zoom, you are uploading significantly more than you used to,” Katharine Trendacosta, Associate Director of Policy and Activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Gizmodo. “The FCC-defined minimum is set at a level that makes it easier for companies like Comcast to claim that they are covering more people, but as the pandemic has shown, that minimum is not sufficient for the modern era.”
Comcast says it has also committed to set up 1,000 “lift zones” (i.e. free wifi access) in community centers across the country, by December 2021, including several in Philadelphia. “Many of the kids who come to our clubs either don’t have the Internet at home or they have it, but they can’t study at home for a variety of reasons and they need somewhere to go,” said Lisabeth Marziello, President & CEO, Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia in Comcast’s press release.
On one hand, it’s great that Comcast is working with organizations like the Boys & Girls club to provide students a reliable internet access. Yet Comcast’s “lift zones” are likely the result of communities fighting for them. Prior to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, teachers, parents and internet advocates protested for Comcast to provide better internet to the students of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Inquirer at the time explained those protesting wanted Comcast to not only increase speeds for customers on its Internet Essentials plan, but to also open more free wifi hotspots. That was in August 2020, and Comcast’s Internet Essentials customers are just now about to get better internet speeds, almost halfway into the spring semester.
It’s a sobering reminder that ISPs have the ability to restructure their internet packages, and even waive data caps and overage fees, any time they want—they just choose not to. In November 2020, Comcast announced it would start charging Xfinity customers in northeastern U.S. states $10 for every 50GB of data over their 1.2TB monthly data cap. That change when into effect last month.
As of now, customers not already on an unlimited plan—like those who pay for the Internet Essentials package—can get any overage fees waived. But that stops at the end of this month. After that, customers get one “courtesy” credit every year if they go over their data cap by accident.
Gizmodo reached out to Comcast to ask about the timing of today’s announcement, and to find out if the company has plans to lift its data caps any time soon, but have yet to receive a response. Meanwhile, Massachusetts lawmakers have asked the ISP to remove its data caps at least until the pandemic is over.