Skip to main content

Op-Ed: Comcast Trying to Prove It Isn't Horrible By Offering Free Internet and Debt Pardon

The cable company Comcast has been under a lot of fire recently. Many folks have called the company 'horrible' and 'pure evil,' among other things. Of course, Comcast's PR team is probably working very hard to prove that it is not a horrible company, and in serving that effort, Comcast has now announced a number of changes to its Internet Essentials program.

The Internet Essentials program is aimed squarely at low-income families, with the idea being to connect as many people as possible to the Internet. For $10 (+VAT) per month, users will have basic Internet access along with the option of purchasing a computer for $150. However, the requirements are strict and clear. You need to be in an area where Comcast offers its service, you may not have subscribed to Comcast Internet service in the last 90 days, you can have no outstanding bills or equipment returns, and most notably, you must have at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program. The Internet Essentials program has been running since 2011, and has connected over 350,000 households in that time.

Mind you, those were the old requirements and services. Comcast is temporarily offering up to six months of free service, along with an amnesty program. The amnesty program will officially pardon families signing up who have outstanding bills to Comcast that are over one year old. This loosens up the requirements a bit and will allow more families to sign up. To qualify for the six free months of service, though, you may not have been subscribed to the Internet Essentials program in the past.

Credit should be given where credit is due. Such a program does help a lot of people and makes it possible for many to connect to the world wide web from home who would otherwise never be able to afford it. It is widely known that internet connectivity is quite expensive in the states. The requirements for the program might be strict, but they do ensure that the program is used exclusively by the people who need it the most: today's pupils.

Of course, this program is funded partially through subsidies, which makes us wonder whether there isn't another side to this move. Under these temporary terms, a lot of families that previously couldn't qualify are now able to sign up. The problem is, they might not be able to afford the service after the six-month period is over, yet they could still be tied to an agreement. Ten dollars might not sound like much, but $120 per year is still a big sum of money for some. So the big question is: Is Comcast attempting to reel in more subscribers (who might not even be able to afford the service), simply to raise more subsidy money for themselves? There may not be all that many folks who owe large outstanding payments that are over a year old to Comcast, and accepting $60 less per new family that signs up isn't all that much money for such a big company. From a business point of view, that would make this a fairly cheap, if not profitable, PR stunt.

We find it hard to argue with the fact that this is a good deal for most relevant customers, and we agree that the Internet Essentials program itself is necessary. However, this move has us wondering whether if there are ulterior business motives. The problem isn't that Comcast is using this to make a bigger profit. No, the problem is that to do so, the company is using people's debt to Comcast, to tempt them to get a service they otherwise wouldn't sign up for, and cannot afford.

Topping it all off, Davin Cohen, Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer in Community Investment said "Also, with the recent announcement of our merger with Time Warner Cable, we see a tremendous opportunity to bring the benefits of Internet Essentials to millions of additional families in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Kansas City, and Charlotte, to name just a few. I’m thrilled that, after the Time Warner Cable transaction closes, Internet Essentials will be available in nineteen of our nation’s twenty largest cities." This sounds good, but not everyone in the public is entirely comfortable with this merger, and perhaps Comcast is just greasing the wheels to make it as painless as possible for regulators to sign off on it. Comcast is being watched very closely by U.S. antitrust regulators.

For the most part, the Internet Essentials program is good, but it's not all ribbons and gifts. We should be careful, and not get blinded by the cloud of PR smoke. What do you think?

The offer will run until September 20, 2014.

*Any opinions that may or may not be deduced from this article are those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by the rest of Tom's Hardware.

Follow Niels Broekhuijsen @NBroekhuijsen. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.

Niels Broekhuijsen

Niels Broekhuijsen is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He reviews cases, water cooling and pc builds.