Comcast extends Internet access to the poor as Time Warner deal looms

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Comcast said Tuesday that it will extend its Internet Essentials program to supply low-cost Internet access "indefinitely," a goodwill gesture as it hopes to complete a $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable.

The Internet Essentials program supplies Internet access for $9.95 per month, with the option to buy a computer for $150 more. The program has been extended to 1.2 million low-income Americans, or 300,000 families, Comcast said, dating back to its inception in 2011. At the time, Comcast supplied speeds of 1.5 Mbps download speed, and up to 384 Kbps upload. Currently, it supplies download speeds of up to 5 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 1 Mbps, according to a company FAQ.

Comcast also said that it would create create Internet Essentials Learning Zones for those communities that had done the most to bridge the so-called digital divide, or the gap between those who could afford broadband, and those who could not. New customers in those zones could sign up for six months of free Internet service.

"Here at Comcast, addressing the digital divide head-on has long been a priority for our company," Comcast executive vice president David Cohen said in a statement. "We believe the Internet has the power to transform lives, strengthen communities, and inspire a new generation of leaders."

Meanwhile, however, Comcast is trying to convince regulators to allow it to buy Time Warner Cable in a deal valued at $45.2 billion. The deal would add a net total of about 8 million subscribers to Comcast's books, for a total of about 30 million after the deal closes. The deal has been challenged by consumer groups, who argue the combined company would have too much power in the marketplace, especially in areas where there is no viable broadband alternative. Supplying low-cost broadband as a condition of the merger might make the TWC deal more palatable to regulators.

What monopoly? says Comcast. Net neutrality rules that Comcast agreed to as a condition of its buying NBC in 2011 would be extended to Time Warner, Comcast executive vice president David Cohen said on a conference call in February. But it was unclear whether a network peering deal between Comcast and Netflix was simply good business, or a slap at the network neutrality principle. Somewhat suspiciously, Comcast increased the network throughput to its Austin, Tex. customers as Google was entering the city with its Google Fiber rollout.

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