Comcast’s Internet For The Poor Too Hard To Sign Up For, Advocates Say
FCC urged to boost Comcast's commitments in Time Warner Cable merger.
by Jon Brodkin
July 23 2014
A California nonprofit says that a Comcast Internet service program for poor people is too difficult to sign up for, resulting in just 11 percent of eligible households in the state getting service.
Comcast had to create the $10-per-month Internet Essentials program in order to secure approval of its acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011. About 300,000 households containing 1.2 million people nationwide have gotten cheap Internet service as a result, but the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) complains that the signup process is riddled with problems, a charge Comcast denies.
Comcast COO admits: "Retention agent... did a lot of what we trained him to do."
CETF itself was created by the California Public Utilities Commission when approving the mergers of SBC-AT&T and Verizon-MCI, and its purpose was to accelerate broadband deployment for unserved or underserved populations. The group says additional requirements should be imposed on Comcast as part of its pending acquisition of Time Warner Cable.
In comments filed with the FCC, CETF said Comcast has signed up 35,205 households out of more than 313,000 eligible ones in California. Nationwide, 300,000 families out of 2.6 million eligible have signed up, Comcast said in March. The service offers 5Mbps download and 1Mbps upload speeds and a computer for $150, of which 23,000 have been sold.
"Comcast makes the sign-up process long and cumbersome," CETF claimed. "The application process often takes 2-3 months, far too long for customers who are skeptical about the product in the first place, and have other pressing demands on their budgets. The waiting period between the initial call to Comcast and the CIE [Comcast Internet Essentials] application arriving in the mail can stretch 8-12 weeks, if it comes at all. After submitting the application, another 2-4 weeks elapse before the equipment arrives. Many low-income residents do not have Social Security Numbers (SSNs) and are required to travel long distances to verify their identities because Comcast has closed many of its regional offices. Recently, some potential subscribers with SSNs were rejected over the phone and told they had to visit a Comcast office. Comcast has a pilot effort in Florida that should be expanded to allow customers to fax or e-mail photocopied IDs as proof of identification."
This is false, Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas told Ars today. "Once we receive a fully executed application we can provision service in about three to five days," he said. CETF has "brought us customers in the past, and we diligently look through every single one and try to resolve it to the best of our ability and will continue to do that if there are additional customers they haven't brought to our attention," Douglas said.
CETF also wrote that Comcast has violated program rules by conducting credit checks. "Comcast conducts credit checks for some customers, contrary to CIE rules," the CETF filing said. "Dozens of clients are receiving letters from Comcast saying that they have failed a credit check. Comcast specifically states and advertises no credit check is needed for CIE. This has repercussions beyond obtaining broadband service. The act of performing a credit check can negatively impact the consumer’s credit worthiness. Initially, some CIE service representatives told customers they could pay $150 deposit to avoid a credit check, also contrary to program rules."
Douglas acknowledged that problem, chalking it up to a "technical error" in which a credit check was incorrectly triggered by an automated process. "That was an error we made, and we have tried to make right with any customer who was impacted," Douglas said. "We have reached out and apologized to customers and tried to resolve the problem in each and every instance." In cases when a credit check was performed by mistake, "we worked with the credit reporting agencies to have it removed from the applicant's record, and we worked with the partner organization to communicate that back to the applicant."
CETF also claimed that the CIE online application "has never worked properly... The site is often unable to complete address eligibility searches and simply redirects the customer to the 1- 855 number again. This situation has been a major barrier at technology fairs, where families are told they cannot sign up online and must make a separate trip to a Comcast office. Comcast continues to ignore consumer feedback about the poor website operations."
Douglas said the online application does work. "We process thousands of applications online," he said. Applicants may be prompted to call if Comcast records indicate they have an unpaid bill or are at an address not in the company's service territory, he said.
Internet Essentials to play role in Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger
Comcast's annual report on its NBC commitments said that it "has distributed 27 million brochures in 14 different languages to school districts and community partners, fielded more than 1.5 million phone calls at the Internet Essentials call center, had 1.2 million visits to the websites, and broadcast more than two million PSAs about the program. The company has offered Internet Essentials in more than 30,000 schools in 4,000 school districts and provided tens of thousands of individuals with digital literacy training."
Comcast originally promised to keep the program running through June 2014, but "in March we announced voluntarily that we are going to extend the program indefinitely," Douglas said.
"This is an extremely hard group to market to," Comcast VP of Government Communications Sena Fitzmaurice told Ars today. "After 15+ years of marketing broadband everywhere we can, spending hundreds of millions of dollars doing so, our overall broadband penetration is only 39 percent in our markets (that was from our earnings call just yesterday). That we’ve gotten as many people as we have signed up via this program in this short a time is great."
Comcast has touted Internet Essentials while trying to win approval of its Time Warner Cable acquisition, pledging to bring the program to "millions of additional families in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Kansas City, and Charlotte," which are in TWC service areas.
The CETF urged the FCC to increase Comcast's commitments if the TWC merger is approved, asking for conditions including the following:
Include All Low-Income Households: Extend Comcast Internet Essentials to all low-income households, not just those with school children. For example, low- income seniors, people with disabilities, and recently returned veterans are not covered today.
Set Performance Goals: Set a national goal for Comcast to increase Internet Essentials subscribership for eligible households (now at about 11% in California and the nation) to reach 45% in 2 years and to continue the program until 80% adoption is achieved in low-income neighborhoods in each major Comcast market.
Capitalize an Independent Fund and Coordinate with States: Collaborate with states such as California that are major Comcast-TWC markets and have a strategic plan to close the Digital Divide and require Comcast to dedicate a sufficient amount to an independently managed fund to engage experienced community-based organizations to assist in achieving subscriber goals.
Read more at Ars Technica