In a victory for student activists pushing to close the digital divide, Comcast announced today that it will be increasing speeds for its low-cost Internet Essentials plan, which some families have said wasn’t fast enough for online learning.
Since the pandemic forced schools online last spring, students have been arguing that the speeds Comcast offered at a discount to low-income households — 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload — weren’t sufficient for remote classes, especially in homes with multiple people using the internet at the same time. Comcast said it will increase those speeds to 50 Mbps and 5 Mbps, respectively.
While Comcast’s increase did not fully meet the students’ demands, the teenagers were nonetheless in a celebratory mood at a press conference held outside Baltimore City Hall on Tuesday afternoon.
“This news is very exciting for all of us,” said Aliyah Abid, one of the activists involved in Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society (SOMOS). “Like, jumping for joy type of news.”
Kimberly Vasquez, a Baltimore City College High School senior and lead SOMOS organizer, agreed. “This increase of speeds means so much to me because it means me and my sisters can hopefully access all of our classes simultaneously,” she said. “I’m feeling hopeful. It’s about time.”
Comcast announced the news in a press release on Tuesday morning. “To receive the increased Internet speeds, existing customers will not need to do anything,” the company said. “The new speeds will be rolled out nationally beginning March 1.”
In response to outcry from students and families, Comcast has repeatedly argued that the Internet Essentials speeds it had offered since March 2020 met the Federal Communications Commission definition of high-speed broadband and should have been sufficient for multiple, concurrent videoconferences.
“This change is an acknowledgment that Comcast recognizes and most likely has recognized since the beginning that its service was inadequate, and not nearly enough for what people actually needed,” Abid said at Tuesday’s press conference.
The students plan to continue pressuring Comcast for additional changes, such as making public Wi-Fi hotspots completely free for everyone. Members of Baltimore’s City Council also said they would continue to try to eliminate Comcast’s near monopoly in Baltimore and establish municipal broadband.
“Today Comcast acknowledged what these students have said for months: Internet Essentials is not fast enough, and they must do better,” said City Councilmember Zeke Cohen. “Let’s be clear: we will continue to fight to make the internet into a public utility. We will push the FCC and the Biden administration to invest in this critical infrastructure and eliminate the digital divide.”
FCC Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has publicly questioned whether the current definition of broadband is fast enough to support the needs of American households, but the agency did not respond to requests for comment regarding whether it has plans to change its guidelines.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said Comcast’s speed increase is “an important improvement over the status quo, but it still won’t do the job for families with more than one child.” He suggested Comcast offer 5 Mbps per child in each household.
“It’s clear the existing definition, particularly for upload speeds, is far out of date,” Wyden told BuzzFeed News. “The FCC should update its definition regularly to reflect the realities of work, school and commerce, especially as COVID-19 accelerated the trends toward virtual activities.”
Comcast’s decision to increase the Internet Essentials speeds comes as the company faces pressure from lawmakers over its plan to introduce a 1.2 terabyte cap on data usage for home internet subscribers. When the cap is rolled out, customers who go over their limit will be charged $10 for every 50 GB up to a limit of $100 for regular customers and $30 for Internet Essentials customers. Comcast has said only a small percentage of “super user customers” typically use such a “massive” amount of data, but larger households with multiple people streaming, videoconferencing, and downloading games and videos might find themselves exceeding that limit.
After members of Congress and state legislatures pushed back against the cap, which could result in fees for families who are working and learning from home during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Comcast decided to delay implementation. The company now says new charges won’t go into effect until July 2021.
For now, the increase to Internet Essentials speeds is a big win for the students who spent hundreds of hours drafting petitions, speaking at hearings, and organizing press conferences. “There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Vasquez. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Correction: Sen. Ron Wyden was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.