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Comcast providing debt ‘amnesty’ for subscribers to low-income service

Two months after the Washington Post wrote about a Philadelphia woman who couldn’t subscribe to Comcast’s reduced-price Internet service because of a $53 charge from a decade ago, company officials say it has a new policy.

The Internet Essentials program, which provides broadband access to low-income students and their families, will offer an “amnesty” program to former subscribers.

“Anyone who has a balance in any amount that’s over a year, you’ll have amnesty from that, and you’ll be able to sign up for the program immediately,” explained David Cohen, Comcast Corp.’s executive vice president.

In addition, Comcast is offering the first six months of service for free to customers who subscribe by mid-September.

The issue of pre-existing balances as a barrier for subscribers came to Comcast’s attention through its nonprofits, which help to market Internet Essentials, Cohen said.

Hannah Sassaman, the policy director of the Media Mobilizing Project in Philadlephia, said the changes will expand access. But, she said, as Internet has become a basic utility in the 21st century, it should be even more widely available.

“You can’t apply for a job at Walmart without Internet access, let alone college. You can’t advocate for your child’s education or access homework unless you have reliable affordable Internet at home,” Sassaman said.

Low-income residents, she said, shouldn’t have to rely on Comcast’s “charity,” and she suggested a better solution would be greater regulation and competition among Internet service providers.

The Internet Essentials program was introduced in 2011, during Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal. The announced changes come as Comcast seeks permission to merge with Time-Warner.

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