Comcast Internet Essentials for low-income families doesn’t include wi-fi

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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.

Phil wrote:

      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.”

 


POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON October 15, 2013

Comments & Trackbacks (11) | Post a Comment

[…] just read an interesting article on Comcast Internet Essentials. Here’s the good […]

Peter Macinkovic

“Wi-fi modems retail at about $75-$90.”

If they are low-income families, why not provide options for affordable Wifi Modems for ~$25 from overseas vendors – or perhaps even less at wholesale rates?

That said, if they are low-income families they might not need Wifi if they lack multiple devices to connect to it.

Amy

Maybe I’m confused, but did this guy donate three tablets or notebooks to this family? He just says three computers. I don’t understand how this could hurt this family. If they qualify for Internet Essentials they aren’t going to be a multi-iPad household, right?

Is the problem here that Comcast isn’t providing a cable modem with wi-fi for that $10/month? I get why it would be nice if the service came with wi-fi, too. But for just $10/month it seems a little unreasonable to beat up on Comcast for not providing it. (Lord knows there are plenty of other reasons to beat up on Comcast.)

Anya Kamenetz

I think the issue is that Comcast is not clear about what they are providing. If a family has a kid in school that has been the recipient of a mobile device or tablet, which are very popular in 1 to 1 programs, that kid won’t be able to use wifi to get online at home without the purchase of the special router.

Carl

A Windows laptop or computer containing a wireless card can be changed into a wireless hotspot easily, I would run one on my HP all in one at school so I could use my tablet – completely against all of the “rules”. In this case, it would be legal. There are free software packages that do this, but one familiar with Win7 can get it done this way http://www.ehow.com/how_7202962_turn-pc-wireless-hotspot.html

Robb Topolski

I don’t understand how Comcast can detect and inhibit a “Wi-Fi” router. Maybe they’re locking it into the MAC address of the computer at install time.

At 5 Mbps/1 Mbps, any 10-year-old router will do. Here’s how it -should- go.
1. Unplug power to the Comcast modem
2. Hook up the router
3. Power up the Comcast modem, wait 60 seconds
4. Power up the router, wait 60 seconds
5. You should be online with the router and Wi-Fi.

If that still doesn’t work, look for a feature in the router that lets you clone the MAC address of the computer that was originally registered when the Comcast service was installed. The D-Link DI-624 wireless router was a popular modem with this feature and it’s less than $20 on Ebay. It will handle those speeds just fine and it has the MAC address clone feature.

The MAC address clone feature is also on my current Netgear WNR3500L router. I’m guessing it’s commonly available across current routers.

[…] Comcast Internet Essentials for low-income families doesn’t include wi-fi is from The Hechinger Report. […]

[…] Shapiro, who refurbishes donated computers and distributes them to needy families regularly runs into Comcast’s Wi-Fi ban – a significant issue for larger families that need to be online […]

ka-sara-sara

Another catch to the program
Originally supplied Comcast modem died after one year of service. Comcast was informed several times – never sent a replacement through the mail. A second hand cable modem was used. *THAT* modem worked for several more months until Comcast upgraded its systems to Ipv6 & Ipv4, then Comcast indicated the modem reached *End of Life* and needed upgrading where Comcast THEN charges for modem rental and service installation. Was told to *call Comcast* by a Comcast representative to *FIND OUT* if modems are supplied after 2yrs of the Internet Essentials program. Nevermind Comcast ditched (upgraded their systems) the modem originally supplied with the program. Nothing found anywhere on Comcast concerning *replacement* of either defective or *End of Life* modems in the Internet Essentials Program. Neat huh?

[…] Comcast Internet Essentials for low-income families doesn’t include wi-fi is from The Hechinger Report. […]

Evangeline

My issue with the non-wi-fi internet essentials is that most of the outlets for comcast are in the living room in a corner by the tv, not in a bedroom, or more convenient or conducive area for studying.
That said, if you have 3 kids with 3 computers doing homework simultaneously and all needing to be going online for research, graphics, etc., then it becomes immediately apparent that wi-fi is necessary to avoid the breakout of world war z.
This and the fact that most home-schooling requires being in classes when all 3 children must be online at the same time.
What is interesting is that Comcast is not PROHIBITING that wi-fi be used with this service, only that they, themselves, do not provide a wireless modem so it is incumbent on the family receiving the service to fork out the money for one. This would not be so bad if Comcast were honest and forthcoming enough to let you know in advance that this “essential” is not part of their internet essentials program.
Also, if you are not careful, they will charge you for the regular modem. If you are not aware that the wired modem for this service comes free of charge to i.e. recipients, then do not be surprised to find the bill includes 3 easy payments of $24.99. You have to scream pretty loudly to be heard over the din of those at the company who are unaware that the wired modems are included free of charge.

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