By KYW tech editor Ian Bush
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- More than a half-million families have signed up for Comcast's Internet Essentials, the program designed to hook up lower-income homes with a high-speed web connection. Now, that link is getting a boost.
"We're doubling that speed to 10 megabits per second [download]," says David Cohen, Comcast Corporation's senior executive vice president. "There's no extra charge to the consumers."
Existing Internet Essentials customers must reboot their modem by unplugging it for 30 seconds to see a speedier pace.
Until now, the $10/month service has been available to families with children enrolled in schools where at least 70 percent of the kids are eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program. Now, Comcast is extending it to schools where at least half the students have such eligibility.
"Every child in that school is eligible," Cohen says. "In Philadelphia, every child who attends a district public school will be eligible for Internet Essentials regardless of whether their family is individually eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program."
For them, and for existing Internet Essentials customers, Comcast is offering free WiFi routers to connect smartphones, tablets, and laptops to the reduced-cost service.
Advocacy groups have been calling on the company to offer all of the above, and to extend the program to other groups, like low-income adults who don't have kids, and the elderly.
Cohen spoke with KYW Newsradio from Palm Beach, Florida, where the company is beginning a test program with low-income seniors.
"We certainly have a commitment to extend it to low-income seniors on a national basis," he says. "But we need to make sure we have a system designed that works and that it's more than a PR announcement."
He brushed off criticism that the increased download speed still doesn't meet the FCC's definition of "advanced broadband," which is 25 megabits per second or higher.
"For most FCC purposes, either no definition applies or 10 [Mbps download] applies," Cohen argues. "Ten Mbps download speed is more than the sweet spot for acceptable speed for citizens to be able to access the Internet for everything, up to and including video streaming. We didn't receive many complaints at a 5 Mbps down speed in terms of our Internet Essentials customers not being able to do what they do online. But rolling out WiFi, allowing multiple devices to be connected, and with the increased level of streaming videos and educational software, we thought moving to a 10 Mbps down speed would provide a better customer experience and a better service to our Internet Essentials customers."
The company did not provide updated numbers of Philadelphia families who've signed up for the program. Last year, it said more than 9,000 local families -- or about a tenth of those eligible -- had gotten on board.
An application is available at apply.internetessentials.com/ or by calling 855-846-8376.
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