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Comcast, under pressure from politicians and advocates, raises speeds of Internet Essentials service

Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, right, listens to Yashira Valenzuela, an organizer for Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society (SOMOS) , speak Tuesday outside City Hall during a rally to help students and others have access to more affordable, better quality Internet as they work and attend classes from home. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Comcast is raising the speeds of its Internet Essentials broadband program next month following pressure from lawmakers and youth advocates to improve the reduced-cost service that families rely on during the coronavirus pandemic.

Starting March 1, the company will increase the $9.95 a month program’s download speed from 25 Mbps (megabits per second) to 50 Mbps and the upload speeds from 3 Mbps to 5 Mbps. The company wrote in a news release that the change will extend to all new and existing Internet Essentials customers at no additional cost.

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“This is the sixth time in 10 years that Comcast has increased broadband speeds for Internet Essentials customers while keeping the cost of the service at $9.95 a month,” the company wrote. Comcast last raised the speeds in March 2020, when it bumped download speeds from 15 Mbps to 25 Mbps and upload speeds from 2 Mbps to 3 Mbps.

The company added that anyone who signs up for the Internet Essentials service before June 30 will get 60 days of free service.

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The increase comes after months of pressure from advocates and legislators to improve the service while more people work from home and school lessons are conducted virtually. The issue has also become national one, with cities such as Philadelphia announcing plans and partnerships with Comcast to provide free internet access for low-income families in pursuit of what officials are calling “digital equity.”

The updated speeds still are less than what some Baltimore City Council members and advocates have called for, as a coalition called on Comcast last year to raise the program’s download cap to 100 Mbps and its upload cap to 25 Mbps. The company estimates that about 104,000 Baltimoreans, or more than one out of every six residents, gets their internet service through the reduced-bandwidth program.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen had sent a letter to Comcast Cable CEO David Watson before the announcement, writing that the 25/3 Mbps speeds are proving “insufficient for many.”

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday, Van Hollen said that while the increase “is a step in the right direction,” he still supports raising the minimum download speed for such programs to 100 Mbps.

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“We need to establish a national standard of at least 100 [Mbps] and we’re going to be pushing to do that as part of the minimum essentials [program,]” Van Hollen said.

Prior to the increase in speeds, Comcast had said the average home running on 25/3 Mbps internet speeds would be able to support “three high-quality Zoom calls at the same time ... as well as educational sources like Khan Academy and Blackboard.”

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Kristie Fox, spokeswoman for Comcast in the Beltway region, said that while the company maintains that its current 25/3 Mbps internet speeds can support multiple Zoom meetings at a time, it is making the improvements in support of “digital equity.”

Kimberly Vasquez, a Baltimore City College High School senior and organizer for the Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society (SOMOS) advocacy group, said in a statement that the group is “thrilled to hear [Comcast]finally listened and doubled their speeds.”

During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Vasquez said the increased speeds will make a large difference in her household as “it means that me and my sisters can hopefully access all of our classes simultaneously.”

Baltimore City Schools Teacher and SOMOS adviser Franca Muller Paz also praised Comcast’s decision saying that the city’s youth “claim an “enormous victory against a multibillion dollar corporation.”

During the afternoon press conference, she noted that the city’s school system paid the company $650,000 to provide internet to 14,000 disadvantaged children. In its latest earnings release, the cable company also touted adding 538,000 new high-speed internet customers in the fourth quarter of 2020, “the Best Fourth Quarter Result on Record” in that regard.

Councilman Zeke Cohen, who has worked alongside the group in advocating for improved internet speeds, said in a statement that group remains “committed to ensuring that all of Baltimore’s families can afford a reliable internet connection.”

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At the press conference, he and fellow Councilman Ryan Dorsey pushed for the city to pursue a municipally-run alternative to Comcast Xfinity internet.

They and others have argued that internet access should be treated as a public service and the two councilmen said it is time for Baltimore to follow cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee in providing a public option.

“[Comcast’s] model is to extract wealth from Baltimore City and anywhere else they can, one household at a time. Their pricing is not based on a cost-to-service ratio,” Dorsey said. “It’s based on how much they can get out of people with little to no other alternative available to them.”

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