As Chicago schools prep to ramp up remote learning, a call on Comcast and other internet providers to do more

Comcast’s efforts to get low-income Chicagoans online amid the coronavirus outbreak have received praise from Mayor Lori Lightfootwide and wide media coverage. District and charter schools have pointed students to the company’s 60-day free Wi-Fi offer. 

But some Chicago nonprofits have become more skeptical of the service and its limitations, and online petitions are circulating locally calling on Comcast and other internet providers to do more to help bridge the digital divide. 

The company made its $9.95 “Internet Essentials” Wi-Fi service free for two months for new customers and, after Lightfoot’s urging, permanently doubled the speed of that service nationally. Comcast has touted the offer as part of its broader coronavirus response, which also includes suspending data limits, disconnects and late fees for all its customers.

But nonprofit leaders note the offer excludes current customers and some with unpaid Comcast bills; they argue the two months of free service is not long enough and that the sign-up process can be confusing. Some say that after the early rush to get the word out about resources for weathering the outbreak, they are now more mindful of the fine print.

“We’re thinking more intentionally about what resources we are sharing,” said Victor Dufour, the associate director of community partnerships at the Albany Park Community Center, who shared information about Comcast’s free offer widely at first but has stopped recommending it. “For Comcast, this is a community-driven initiative. But it’s also a marketing piece.”

A Chicago spokesman for Comcast defended the Internet Essentials offer. 

“At $9.95 a month with the first 60 days free for new customers, we think the service is a great value,” said the spokesman, Jack Segal, noting that more than 8 million people nationally now use Internet Essentials.

In Chicago and nationally, the need to learn and work from home amid coronavirus-imposed school closures and quarantine has highlighted the digital divide between low-income and better-off residents. Chicago Public Schools just launched an effort to hand out as many as 100,000 digital devices to students. But the district has said it cannot afford to ensure internet access for all students and has appealed to providers to help power its efforts to step up remote learning.

Liliana Almazan, the mom of a Chicago Public Schools sophomore in Brighton Park, says she jumped on the offer to get two free months of Internet Essentials — an 8-year-old Comcast internet access program for low-income families.

With schools in the city shuttered and learning migrating online, she was worried her son would fall behind in his studies. Her parents tapped their savings to give the boy an early birthday present: his first laptop. But that would only help so much without an internet connection. 

Almazan says she heard from a friend that Comcast could send her a free self-install kit. But when she tried to sign up online, she says, the site prompted her to schedule a visit by a technician to do the installation. She spent a long time on hold for a customer service rep before giving up. Eager to take advantage of the offer, she signed up for the installation. The technician who set up her internet told her she would get a bill for between $70 and $100. 

“How is it free if you are charged for installation?” she said. 

Segal, the Comcast spokesman, said the free self-install kit is the first option for customers when they sign up online. 

Albany Park Community Council leaders noted that residents who have an outstanding bill with Comcast within the last year are not eligible for the free offer, which is only open to new customers. The council worries that some customers scrambling to deal with the personal and economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak will not realize that monthly charges have kicked in after the initial 60 days. 

At least a couple of local community nonprofits have stopped steering families toward the service.  Meanwhile, a West Side community group called Mi Villita started an online petition calling on Comcast to extend the free Internet Essentials offer beyond two months. The petition notes Chicago Public Schools’ device distribution push. 

“Even before coronavirus, (students) could not afford the monthly internet fees,” the petition reads.

A separate petition is urging the Federal Communications Commission to compel companies like Comcast that have signed its Keep Americans Connected pledge — a vow to remove hurdles to digital access during an unprecedented time — to stop excluding customers with overdue bills from free internet offers. That petition notes the importance of internet access at a time of mass school closures.

Segal said the company is willing to work with customers who have outstanding bills and said they can apply again and contact Comcast directly if they are unable to reapply. 

Speaking about the 60-day free offer overall, he said, “The response has been very positive.”

Updated: Comcast looked into Almazan’s situation after this story was published and said she, like other Internet Essentials customers, would not be charged for installation.