COVID-19, more popularly known as the coronavirus, is the communicable, flu-like disease that affects the respiratory system and is at the center of the current pandemic. Efforts to slow the spread of the virus have non-essential employees from all industries and public, private and parochial school students gearing up to work and learn from home for an indefinite but long-term period.
But with the spike in telecommuting and at-home virtual classrooms comes the reality that some households and low-income areas are without either internet access or the tools to get online — especially in the face of widespread library closures that further restrict affordable access for many. Even more aren’t sufficiently equipped to handle the digital demands of their jobs or education with at-home internet limitations.
“During this difficult time, when schools and workplaces are closed due to the coronavirus, access to the internet has never been more important,” said Alexandra Wachman, Public Relations Manager at Comcast. “With this in mind, we are going to offer 60 days of free internet service through our Internet Essentials program … for low-income Americans. Additionally, we’re increasing speeds of the service for all new and existing customers.”
Internet Essentials has provided low-cost, high-speed internet to more than eight million eligible customers since 2011.
Effective March 16, Comcast rolled out “two substantial program enhancements” for Internet Essentials and those families most technologically compromised by the new normal of working and learning from home, both Wachman and a press release further explained.
“A hallmark of this program has been our flexibility in adjusting Internet Essentials to meet the needs of low-income residents in our footprint,” Wachman explained of the two-pronged approach.
Eligible, low-income new customers in a Comcast service area can get 60 days of complimentary Internet Essentials service by signing up for the program, typically available to eligible households for $9.95 a month. It must be applied for by April 30, 2020.
Additionally, Internet Essentials will permanently and automatically increase its speeds from 15/2 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps for new and existing customers alike.
All new services and initiatives are available to both New Jersey and Pennsylvania Comcast customers, according to Wachman.
“In this way, we will ensure that Internet Essentials customers will be able to use their internet service for all their increased needs as a result of this health crisis,” she noted.
Five additional steps have also been announced offering increased affordability, connectivity or access to information. Xfinity WiFi hotspots will be available for free (a hotspot map can be accessed at xfinity.com/wifi), while a pause in all data plans will offer unlimited data at no additional charge for 60 days.
Disconnects and late fees will also be suspended temporarily, as long as customers communicate with Comcast about the need for a moratorium in payment. School-age children can now access a variety of educational content by saying “education” into an X1 or Flex voice remote. Those same remotes can tap into the most up-to-date COVID-19 information when a user says “coronavirus” into them.
And to accommodate the sudden and long-term shift in internet usage, all systems and networks will be monitored, tested and enhanced to support spikes in user patterns.
Numerous school districts throughout both states have already taken advantage of the programs and services currently available, with many directly helping low-income households in their areas receive free internet to aid in their children’s continued education.
MaST Community Charter School, which has three Philadelphia locations, is one of those schools, according to CEO John F. Swoyer III.
“We have families using the Comcast Essentials package with their pricing discount to access internet throughout our schools,” he said. “We see the impact of access and learning to be key at a time like this for all students.”
In New Jersey’s Burlington County, Evesham Township School District Director of Curriculum and Instruction Danielle Magulick has seen households in need also benefit from accessible internet providing their children’s remote classroom.
“Comcast’s Internet Essentials is one program that we typically talk to families about,” she said. “We do have families who are using the 60 days of free internet.”
Both Swoyer and Magulick said their districts are using Comcast in conjunction with other available technologies, from devices to programs, in order to ensure as seamless a transition as possible from in-person classrooms to at-home screens.
“We are trying to ensure children are engaged while at home and our teachers are using our virtual portal … to make this happen,” Swoyer said. “They are doing an excellent job.”