I just read an interesting article on Comcast Internet Essentials. Here’s the good news…
In its first 23 months, Internet Essentials has signed up 220,000 mostly urban households for Internet access that costs just $9.95 a month, making it the biggest digital divide program in the country. In order to qualify for the program, which also includes digital literacy training and the opportunity to buy low-cost refurbished computers, the household must have at least one child enrolled in the federal free or reduced lunch program at public school. Comcast is currently conducting a 23-state publicity tour to further tout the program. They’ve also recently increased the speeds available to Internet Essentials users, to 5 mbps downstream and 1 mbps upstream; by comparison, Comcast’s lowest cost cable and Internet package offers 20 mbps downloading speeds for $70 a month.
Here’s the hiccup…
I’ve [the original author] taken three donated computers to this family and I was expecting to get them all online with this cable modem service. Aha, but not so fast. Comcast’s telephone tech support tells me that Internet Essentials users cannot use Wi-Fi with their cable modems. Hmmm, but nowhere in Comcast’s printed literature about Internet Essentials is this limitation mentioned. And nowhere on the Comcast Internet Essentials web site is this limitation mentioned. Naturally, families who sign up for Internet Essentials get confused about this, but they are not well positioned to advocate for their needs…
Charlie Douglas, a Comcast spokesperson, confirms that Internet Essentials does not offer wi-fi. “A family that has a wifi modem could plug one in and that could be part of it. We don’t offer it as part of our $9.95 monthly service. We provide the cable modem which is a wired connection.” Wi-fi modems retail at about $75-$90.
Douglas says that to his knowledge, the families served by the program don’t miss the wi-fi access and don’t need it. “I haven’t heard anecdotally of this cohort of people asking for wireless options,” he says.
I applaud any program that offers more affordable broadband to people who need it. But this seems a little short sighted. I think it’s a good investment to provide non-adopters with the best technology experience we can. Part of the roadblock for adoption is lack of skills – setting up unnecessary roadblocks does not help reduce that barrier. This article details the story of a tech consultant who spent time trying to set up the non-existent Wi-Fi option. If he spent 30 minutes on it, you know some other folks have spent hours on it! Presumably, if you got a $75 wireless route you could set up a wireless network – but again that requires some technical aptitude that is often not found in the low-income households taking advantage of such programs.
It’s setting up a level of frustration that could backfire in the long term. I suspect people who are able to make the best use of the network on most likely to continue the connection long after the reduced rates are available. That means no frustration; that means getting the connection you expect; that means getting everyone online.
So again I applaud the effort – and the frustration highlights the nice feature of the regular service – but it seems like most households (especially those with students) would benefit from a wireless network at home.
Increasingly households have multiple computers/devices that connect to the Internet. I live in a house with five people and 13 computers/devices. Kids learn quickly to shift from 3G to home wireless to save on their data plans. The iPads/iPods are Wi-Fi-only to save on data plans. And what will this network look like once the Internet of things really kicks in?