A little over a year ago, Comcast introduced Internet Essentials, in which low-income families are eligible for home Internet service for just $9.95 per month. While roughly 2.3 million families in the U.S. qualify for Internet Essentials, only about 100,000 have signed up. According to Comcast, a main reason why enrollment is so underwhelming is that poor people don’t understand the Internet.
Now entering the second year of its “groundbreaking” program aimed at helping “close the digital divide,” Comcast says that Internet Essentials has surpassed the 100,000-mark for signups. The $9.95 monthly service, available only to American families whose children are eligible for reduced price school lunches, is spreading much more slowly than some anticipated.
In the Philadelphia area, for example, 3,250 families have enrolled. The number of Internet Essentials customers in Philadelphia proper has tripled since the end of 2011, but only 3.3% of the total number of families eligible in the area have signed up, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.
How does Comcast explain the dismal enrollment for a service that represents a 79% discount?
Comcast says it has found that the biggest barrier to Internet Essentials’ adoption is that many people in poor neighborhoods don’t understand the Internet.
“They think it may be used for Comcast or the government to spy on them,” said David Cohen, the program’s chief booster and an executive vice president at Comcast.
Well, there are a few other barriers as well. Comcast doesn’t allow low-income families who already subscribe to its Internet service, or who have subscribed within the past 90 days, to switch to the cheaper Internet Essentials deal. It also bans families who have unpaid Comcast bills or unreturned Comcast equipment from signing up. According to the NPD Group, only 16% of American households do not subscribe to a pay-TV service. The majority of poor families have a pay-TV subscription, and it seems reasonable to assume that poorer families are more likely to have trouble paying the bill each month. If they have an outstanding bill, or if they have Comcast Internet service (including any of the popular bundled plans with TV, phone, and/or Internet), they can’t get Comcast’s $9.95 Internet plan.
Comcast, according to the Inquirer, partly blames the Philadelphia school district for low Internet Essentials adoption, because not enough brochures were ordered and therefore not enough families know what the service is. Understandably enough, Comcast isn’t dropping a lot of money advertising the Essentials program. It’s not much of a money maker, so it makes more financial sense for the company to focus on the marketing and advertising of its higher-priced bundles and services. Observers have also noted that one of the main reasons Comcast launched Essentials was so that its merger with NBC would be OK’d by regulators. It’s not merely a gesture of pure goodwill, or a play for some good PR.
Comcast says, however, that to celebrate the second year of Essentials it is scheduling news conferences around the country to spread the word about its $9.95 Internet service, as well as a program offering vouchers for low-cost computers—just $149.95 plus tax.
What Comcast isn’t saying explicitly in press releases or via spokesperson quotes is that eligible families who are already paying for full-priced Comcast Internet service should cancel their plans. After a 90-day period without Comcast Internet, the family can then sign up for the $9.95 Comcast Essentials Internet. The new service might not be quite as fast as Comcast’s standard Internet, but it sure will be a lot cheaper.