Comcast is expanding its $10-a-month Internet program for the poor

Comcast is relaxing one of the eligibility requirements for its low-cost Internet access program, Internet Essentials. With the change, more Americans who are in poverty will be able to sign up for the company's $10-a-month broadband program.

Under a back-to-school promotion running from now until Sept. 20, new Internet Essentials subscribers will get six months of free Internet access. In addition, those who were previously Comcast customers but were barred from signing up for Internet Essentials because they owed the company money for other services will now be able to subscribe to Internet Essentials — provided that their outstanding bill is more than a year old.

Low-income customers who have an outstanding balance less than a year old will still be able to apply for the program, which offers speeds of 5 Mbps, if they meet the other eligibility requirements, but they'll have to pay off their balance first. The company said Monday that paying in installments would be an option.

"There is more work to be done to bridge the digital divide in America, but we are proud of what we have accomplished so far," wrote Comcast executive vice president David Cohen in a blog post Monday.

Americans can generally sign up for Internet Essentials if they have a child who is eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches. Other requirements, such as not owing Comcast money for equipment or services and not having subscribed to Comcast for the last 90 days, have earned the company some criticism because the restrictions effectively limited the number of eligible participants in the program.

The company has gradually expanded eligibility requirements over time; when it began in August 2011, Internet Essentials was only available to families of students on free school lunches. That was later broadened to include students on reduced-cost lunches, and then later to private schools, parochial schools and homeschooled students.

A company spokesman acknowledged that some families have raised sign-up complaints through Comcast's nonprofit partners, but said that over the course of Internet Essentials' three-year existence, the program has registered 350,000 families for an estimated total of 1.4 million Americans served.

Comcast's subscription-based approach to low-cost Internet is available nationwide. Meanwhile, other companies have begun their own low-cost programs, too. Google Fiber, which is still only available in a handful of cities, provides free 5 Mbps Internet with no eligibility requirements other than an upfront $300 installation fee.

Comcast has been promoting Internet Essentials as part of its campaign to convince regulators to approve a $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable. Cohen's blog post added that the merger would extend Internet Essential to "millions of additional families."

Although the company told the Washington Post it was unclear how many Americans will be newly eligible to apply for Internet Essentials as a result of the more relaxed requirements, the changes promise to make the Internet more affordable for America's least well-off.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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