The two biggest cable companies, Comcast and Charter, have taken lots of public bows this year talking about how they are making sure that homes with students have affordable broadband during the pandemic.
Comcast is serving low-income students with its Internet Essentials product. This product is available to homes that are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, Housing Assistance, Medicaid, SNAP, and SSI. The low-income program got its genesis in 2011 as a requirement for the Comcast acquisition of NBC Universal. The company reluctantly offered the product at first, but after growing to 2.6 million households by 2013, the company decided to keep this as a product.
At the start of the pandemic, Internet Essentials offered speeds of 15 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload. In March 2020 Comcast increased the speeds to 25/3 Mbps. The company worked out deals with some school systems to provide a few months of the product for free. Comcast recently announced that it will increase the speed of the product to 50/5 Mbps on March 1. Comcast recently reported that it has over 8 million households using the product.
Charter has a similar product called Spectrum Internet Assist that delivers 30/3 Mbps for $14.99 with a WiFi router for $5 per month. During the pandemic, Charter has offered qualifying new subscribers two months of free service for any internet product up to 100 Mbps.
A recent article in BuzzFeed documents how students have been pushing back against Comcast, which may have been part of the impetus to increase speeds for Internet Essentials. The article tells of a family with only two students that were unable to both work on the Comcast connection at the same time. The Internet Essentials product is good enough for one student, but not two.
Comcast has been pushing back on criticism of Internet Essentials all year saying that the 25/3 Mbps product is adequate because it meets the FCC’s definition of broadband. But the fact that the company will be increasing the speed to 50/5 Mbps shows that the company recognizes that 25/3 Mbps is not adequate broadband for many households.
This raises the bigger question of how best to provide broadband to low-income homes. While the two programs from the cable companies are inexpensive, they also provide inferior broadband. It feels like the companies are punishing households for not having enough money for a full subscription.
For example, consider the low-income broadband product at EPB in Chattanooga, the municipal broadband provider that delivers over fiber. EPB offers a low-income product of 100/100 Mbps for $26.99, less than half of normal broadband priced at $57.99. This is the identical product delivered to customers paying the full price. The City would like to offer the product for a lower price, but Tennessee law prohibits municipal broadband systems from offering a subsidized product.
The real problem that families are having with the cable company broadband products is the slow upload speeds. Limiting upload speeds to 3, 4, or 5 Mbps is inadequate for students trying to function from home or adults trying to work from home.
During this last year of the pandemic, we have done surveys in a number of cities where households are struggling with the normal cable upload products that have upload speeds between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps. In the four cities we’ve most recently surveyed, about one-third of households say that their cable broadband product is not adequate for working or schooling from home.
The cable companies face a huge dilemma. They know the upload speeds on their network are inadequate. They also know that fixing the problem is going to incredibly expensive. At a minimum, a cable company would have to undertake what is knows as a mid-split to bring the faster upload speeds to something faster like 50 Mbps. The mid-split option has been available under the DOCSIS 3.1 standard, but few cable companies upgraded the upload portions of networks. The even more expensive upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 will be available in a few years to bring symmetrical bandwidth.
Since cable networks are already overloaded, it’s clear that the cable companies don’t want to provide full bandwidth to customers that aren’t paying full price, so they are treating low-income subscribers as second-class citizens. Perhaps they should look at the EPB example and charge more. Why not also offer a $30 product that has better upload speeds?