Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Updated
For the past 15 years, Phil Shapiro has been taking donations of computers and setting them up for families that need them. He wrote to alert me of an issue he discovered recently when helping an Ethiopian immigrant family in Takoma Park, MD.
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.
I’ve 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…
The family that I was helping patiently waited for me while I talked on the phone. They could see that I spoke very politely with the tech support person. They also saw that I had reached the end of my patience.
The father regarded me with hopeful, tired eyes. He takes three buses to go to work each day. His children will not have Wi-Fi at his apartment though, despite the fact that he pays Comcast a monthly fee for broadband Internet service. They will not be able to use wireless laptops or surf the Web with tablets (unless the family pays for far more expensive 4G Internet service for tablets.)
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.
Phil Shapiro, who says he supports the Internet Essentials program, would disagree. He says that the Comcast customer support person told him, “Wireless Internet is not supported for Internet Essentials accounts. With Internet Essentials accounts there is insufficient bandwidth for Wi-Fi.” As an IT professional, Shapiro knew the bandwidth claim wasn’t true, but he says many poor families lacking technology expertise might believe it.
Comcast could be clearer with its customers about exactly what it’s offering. Their choice not to include, or even mention wi-fi access, which would lead to more connected devices and more usage, implies they are attempting to “throttle” or control the bandwidth being used by these lower-paying, low-income customers.
A bigger question is whether home wi-fi is really important for education. Many large school districts, such as Los Angeles, are adopting tablets for student use, which connect to the Internet only wirelessly. However, Douglas argued that wired devices are most useful for educational reasons.
“Many low-income Americans adopt wireless devices like smartphones, but those are poor tools for trying to do something like a homework assignment,” he says. “This particular program has been more focused on wired connectivity and helping to enable and facilitate a computer that would be connected with a wired connection.”