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Comcast agents mistakenly reject some poor people who qualify for free Internet

A Comcast gateway modem-and-router device labeled with the Xfinity brand name.
Enlarge / Comcast’s xFi Advanced Gateway.

Getty Images | Jeff Fusco

People with low incomes can get free Internet service through Comcast and a government program, but signing up is sometimes harder than it should be because of confusion within Comcast’s customer service department.

Massachusetts resident Tonia Williams qualified for the US government’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides $30 monthly discounts, and for Comcast’s Internet Essentials Plus, a $30 monthly service for low-income people that is essentially free when combined with the ACP discount. But when she tried to use the ACP discount with Comcast’s low-income service, Comcast incorrectly told her she wasn’t eligible because she was already a Comcast customer.

Williams, a certified nursing assistant who was not working when she spoke to Ars, was eventually able to get free home Internet service for her family. But she faced several hassles and said she would have given up if it hadn’t been for David Isenberg, a Falmouth resident who’s been helping low-income people in his town navigate the process. Isenberg knew Williams because she was previously a home health aide taking care of Isenberg’s wife’s uncle.

“I would have given up if it wasn’t for David pushing me,” Williams told Ars in a phone interview in November. “It’s such a run-around, and you have to sit and wait on hold. A lot of people don’t have time to sit on the phone for that long and then be told, ‘Well, you don’t qualify.’ If you don’t really know what the service is or how to get it, I would have just believed them, that I didn’t qualify.”

Three applicants wrongly rejected at first

Isenberg contacted Ars in late October after helping Williams and two other people get the discount. All three were incorrectly told they didn’t qualify when they first tried to enroll, Isenberg said.

The confusion is related to a Comcast rule that makes customers ineligible for Internet Essentials low-income service if they have been a Comcast subscriber in the previous 90 days. That rule and another one related to unpaid bills are not supposed to apply to people who also qualify for the federal ACP program.

“If a customer qualifies and enrolls in ACP with Comcast, the 90-day and outstanding debt eligibility restrictions do not apply for the duration of ACP,” a Comcast FAQ says.

But with the first three people Isenberg helped, “Comcast initially told these existing customers that existing customers do not qualify,” he said.

Not every applicant faces the same problem, as Isenberg later helped enroll one man who was not incorrectly rejected. He also heard from another applicant who got into the program without trouble.

Comcast agents “totally not trained”

But the confusion among some Comcast customer service reps suggests the company hasn’t completely trained employees on the rules of the low-income programs.

“They’re totally not trained,” Isenberg said. He also said the enrollment process is difficult even when there are no major mistakes.

“This problem is pretty much invisible. You can’t see it if you’re not actually hands-on, helping people,” Isenberg said. “There’s a very serious class and/or privilege issue here that keeps this really under the radar… if you don’t sit with someone who’s poor and apply with them, you don’t know.”

With one of the applicants who was at first incorrectly rejected, Isenberg told Ars that signing up “took approximately three hours over three days, which is a hell of a burden if you’re a poor person and working two jobs and trying to support a family.”

When contacted by Ars, a Comcast spokesperson said that what Isenberg and Williams described isn’t the “typical experience” for Comcast customers who qualify for the ACP discount. But the spokesperson said Comcast is “doubling back” on training to prevent other people from being incorrectly rejected.

“Getting consumers connected with ACP is top priority for us,” Comcast told Ars in a statement. “We continue to raise awareness about the benefit, train our employees on the program, and refine our processes so that signing up is easy. It’s a continually improving process, and we are committed to getting it right. We’re sorry for any issues these customers experienced and will strive to prevent them from happening again.”

Comcast has offered low-income deals since 2011

Although the government-funded monthly discount only began during the pandemic, Comcast has offered cheap service to qualifying low-income households through Internet Essentials since 2011. The program was originally required in the merger conditions imposed on Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal, and Comcast continues to offer Internet Essentials even though the merger condition expired in 2014. Comcast says the program “has connected a cumulative total of more than 10 million Americans” since 2011.

While the ACP discount can be applied to any tier of Comcast Internet service, it makes sense for qualifying users to opt for the relatively new Internet Essentials Plus plan. The Plus tier “includes 100Mbps download speeds, a cable modem, and Wi-Fi router, and is free after the government’s ACP credit is applied,” Comcast said when it announced the new tier in March. The plan has 20Mbps upload speeds.

Comcast also still sells the basic Internet Essentials tier with 50Mbps download and 10Mbps upload speeds for $10 a month. Comcast’s data caps are not enforced on Internet Essentials users.

Comcast was one of 20 ISPs that agreed to make $30 plans available for ACP-eligible Americans earlier this year.

Comedy of errors

Williams previously qualified for the federal ACP discount and used it on a Comcast plan that cost $75, so her monthly bill was around $45 with the discount applied. Once she learned that she could cut her bill to zero by using the ACP with the $30 Internet Essentials Plus instead, she called Comcast to switch to that plan in mid-October.

Williams put the call on speakerphone mode so Isenberg could listen. The Comcast customer rep who told Williams she didn’t qualify for Internet Essentials Plus “said that what I would have to do is cancel my Internet account for 90 days, and then I could reapply for the Internet Essential Plus,” she said.

Isenberg recalled that he prompted Williams to tell the Comcast agent “that the official Comcast policy is that existing customers do qualify. And she told them and the woman said, ‘Oh, let me look at something.’ And she put us on hold, came back and said, ‘Yes, I think there’s a way you might be able to qualify.'”

But that phone call got cut off, “so we called back and we got somebody else, and there was no record of the transaction between me and this other person,” Williams said. After an hour-long phone call, “Finally somebody said, ‘OK, well, I see you have ACP,'” Williams said.

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