It’s back-to-school time. And while parents still need to load up on traditional school supplies such as pencils, notebooks and erasers, there’s a more expensive item that’s increasingly a necessity for students: Internet access.
Several companies and communities have provided inexpensive Internet access to low-income families. But when bills mount and are left unpaid, the service is often turned off, leaving kids unconnected and falling behind their peers in technology.
Three years ago, Comcast launched Internet Essentials, a program that gives low-income families Internet access for $9.95 a month and discounts on PCs. To apply, families must have at least one child qualifying for the federal school lunch program and any outstanding bill they have with the cable provider must be settled — the latter requirement leading some to criticize Comcast for punishing the poor.
In response, Comcast recently announced that it will forgive unpaid bills that are more than a year old and allow these families to sign up for the program. It will also waive the first six months of fees for those new to the program, which will get families well into the school year before any money is due.
But as Re/Code, the Washington Post, and others have pointed out, the timing of this magnanimous gesture is questionable as it might have something to do with Comcast’s desire to curry favor with the Federal Communications Commission so that its bid to buy Time Warner Cable will be approved.
“While Comcast should be applauded for trying to bridge the digital divide, they are clearly benefiting from the promotion of this program,” said Hannah Sassaman, a policy director at a Philadelphia community organizing group, Media Mobilizing Project.
In an interview with Cecilia Kang of the Washington Post a few months before the unpaid bill waiver was announced, Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said that criticism over the company’s ulterior motive for the program, “makes me sigh. You can criticize us for data consumption caps. You can criticize us because cable bills are too high. You can criticize us because the acquisition of Time Warner Cable will make us too big. I can understand that. But every once in a while, even a big company does a good thing for the right reasons.”
While Comcast’s reason to forgive unpaid bills will never be known, it will get more families online at home and improve low-income children’s chances at being successful at school. And that’s an outcome that’s anything but questionable.