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Comcast’s Xfinity to add fees for customers who exceed data threshold, renewing concerns over digital divide

Beginning in January, Comcast’s Xfinity internet customers in Maryland and elsewhere across the country will face fees for going over a certain amount of data if they’re not enrolled in an unlimited plan.

While Xfinity and experts say the data limits won’t affect most customers, consumer advocates say the move will exacerbate inequity in internet access, an issue that has become more prominent as many people work and attend school virtually.

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Here’s how the new plan will work: All customers will be alloted 1.2 terabytes of data each month. Customers who do not have an unlimited data plan will be charged $10 plus tax for every 50 gigabytes beyond the new threshold, up to a monthly max of $100.

While pricing on plans vary, customers with their own modem and router can join an unlimited data plan for $30 a month, Xfinity says. Customers who do lease an Xfinity modem can get unlimited data, plus some other features, for $11 more a month

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In January and February, customers will not have to pay any overage fees, Xfinity says on its website. And beyond then, customers will get a one-month courtesy waiver of fees for going over the data threshold.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Maryland don’t have access to high-speed internet. In Baltimore, close to 100,000 households — more than 40% of households — lack access, an Abell Foundation report found.

About half of Black and Hispanic households in Baltimore City don’t have broadband, while that number is about 27% for white city residents, according to the report.

Adam Echelman, co-founder of the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition, called Xfinity’s new plan “devastating.”

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“That means more children will be unable to attend school, more adults will be unable to apply for a job or access crucial benefits, more seniors who will not be able to meet with their doctor online, more tenants who will not be able to attend a remote court hearing, and so many others who will be shut out of civic life and essential services,” Echelman said.

But Xfinity’s median customer uses only 308 gigabytes per month, said company spokeswoman Kristie Fox, and only 5% of customers will be affected by the new plan, even during the pandemic and its accompanying internet usage increase. That 5% of users drive 20% of Xfinity’s network traffic, Fox said.

She added that with 1.2 terabytes a month, customers can watch 1,200 hours of distance learning videos or videoconference for 3,500 hours.

“Our data plan is structured in a way that the very small percentage of our customers who use more than 1.2 terabytes of monthly data and generate the greatest demand for network development and capacity pay more for their increased usage,” Fox said. “For those superusers, we have unlimited data options available.”

The average person uses anywhere from 400 to 800 gigabytes per month, said Dan Rayburn, principal analyst of digital media for Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm. An average family with two parents working from home and two kids attending school virtually likely won’t run into issues with the data plan, Rayburn said.

Chrystie Lynch, an 8th grade special education teacher in Prince George's county sits at her home office setup during a virtual holiday party with fellow teachers. 12-23-2020
Chrystie Lynch, an 8th grade special education teacher in Prince George's county sits at her home office setup during a virtual holiday party with fellow teachers. 12-23-2020 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Chrystie Lynch, a special education teacher at G. James Gholson Middle School in Prince George’s County, worries even a small change like this could put some families over the edge. She said many of her students have already struggled to connect to virtual classes without reliable internet service.

“When you start measuring priorities, we know that a roof over your head takes precedence,” Lynch said.

Fox said Xfinity has done “a lot” to bridge the digital divide and will do more in the future. For example, Xfinity has made its Wi-Fi hot spots open to the public nationwide due to the pandemic. There are hundreds of hotspots in the Baltimore area.

Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore worked with Comcast to set up free internet access at its new “cyber center” during the pandemic, and Baltimore City’s school system paid the company $650,000 to get internet for 14,000 disadvantaged students.

Xfinity also offers an “Internet Essentials” that covers internet for low-income families for about $10 per month. In December, Xfinity announced it will be giving free internet service for 60 days to new Internet Essentials customers through June 2021.

Xfinity says Internet Essentials’ speed is right at what the Federal Communications Commission considers broadband internet. But some say it can be unreliable.

Tyrese Myers of Northeast Baltimore’s Belair-Edison neighborhoodcq originally signed up for Xfinity’s Internet Essentials plan, but she said the signal wasn’t strong enough in her housecq. She switched over to a more expensive plan and says the service still isn’t enough sometimes.c

When her 10th-grade daughter does virtual schooling and she tries to do something else online, it causes problems, Myers said. She has been job hunting for a role as an administrative assistant.

“Doing that is a nightmare most times,” she said.

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