- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2020

Comcast faced pressure Thursday from Democrats urging the telecommunications giant to expand internet access to children disconnected because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey wrote Comcast’s chief executive officer asking him to open up millions of wireless networks it operates within the country to children who lack internet access at home, requesting his company’s assistance as classes become fully digital as a consequence of COVID-19, the contagious disease caused by the coronavirus.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and its related mitigation strategies have shuttered schools across the country, leaving teachers and students forced to navigate the necessary but difficult transition to virtual classrooms,” the senators wrote Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts. “Unfortunately, this new burden is disproportionately borne by the 12 million students in rural and low-income areas of the United States who lack reliable internet access at home.

Comcast has taken important steps to help Americans get connected during this global public health emergency,” the lawmakers added. “But it can — and should — do more to help children and teachers in Oregon and across the country. We urge you to start by dropping the paywall and providing free access to Comcast residential public Wi-Fi networks.

At issue, the senators wrote, are wireless networks that the telecom runs on the modems found in the homes and apartments of paying Comcast subscribers. By default, Comcast’s modems have two different Wi-Fi networks — a password-protected network for the subscriber, and a second network controlled by Comcast that the company makes publicly available to be used by paying customers of its “Xfinity” internet service. They want Comcast to make those latter networks freely available, effectively lifting the paywalls on millions of Xfinity hot spots across the country.

Comcast is the largest cable internet company in America; it generated $18.7 billion dollars from high-speed internet access fees in 2019 alone,” the senators wrote. “Particularly in these extremely difficult times, Comcast has a responsibility to do right by the communities in which it does business.”

Comcast touted the company’s response to the outbreak so far in a statement, such as offering free internet to eligible low-income customers, opening up some hot spots and committing not to disconnect service or charge late fees to subscribers impacted by the pandemic.

“Our broadband network has seen extraordinary growth in traffic, and has performed exceedingly well at this new record level of traffic due to our substantial investment in our network and the herculean efforts of our front-line technicians and workers,” Comcast said in the statement. “Our engineering teams are focused on the critical work of supporting our network to allow the millions of Americans who now depend on it to stay connected through the current crisis.”

Schools in most states and abroad have gone fully digital to slow the spread of COVID-19, which can be transmitted from person to person and is considered highly contagious.

President Trump said Wednesday that he would like to see U.S. schools open “wherever possible,” albeit perhaps without teachers who are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.

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