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Comcast helping poor get Internet

Comcast is relaxing the eligibility requirements for its low-cost Internet access program, Internet Essentials, which may allow more poor Americans to sign up for the company's $10-a-month broadband program.

As part of a back-to-school promotion, running until Sept. 20, new subscribers to the program will get six months of free Internet access.

In addition, previous Comcast customers who were barred from signing up for Internet Essentials because they owed the company money for other services will now be eligible – if their outstanding bill is more than a year old.

Low-income customers who have an outstanding balance less than a year old will also be able to apply for the program, which offers speeds of 5 megabits per second, if they meet the other eligibility requirements and pay off their balance.

”There is more work to be done to bridge the digital divide in America, but we are proud of what we have accomplished so far,” David Cohen, Comcast executive vice president, said in a blog post Monday.

The company said it is unclear how many Americans will be newly eligible to apply for Internet Essentials as a result of the more relaxed requirements.

Customers can generally sign up for Internet Essentials if they have a child who is eligible for free or reduced-cost schoollunches.

Other requirements, such as not having subscribed to Comcast during the past 90 days, have generated criticism that the company is limiting the program's potential impact for customers.

Comcast has been gradually expanding eligibility requirements. When it began in August 2011, Internet Essentials was available only to families of students receiving free schoollunches.

That was later broadened to include students on reduced-cost lunches, and then later to private schools, parochial schools and home-schooled students.

A company spokesman acknowledged complaints about the eligibility requirements, but said that the program has registered 350,000 families.

Meanwhile, other companies have begun their own low-cost programs.

Google Fiber, which is available only in a handful of cities, provides free 5 megabits per second Internet with no eligibility requirements other than an upfront $300 installation fee.

Comcast has been promoting Internet Essentials as part of its campaign to persuade regulators to approve a $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable. Cohen said in his blog post that the merger would extend Internet Essentials to “millions of additional families.”