Comcast store at Jefferson Pointe Shopping Center

Comcast Corp. is helping more households hunker down to slow the spread of coronavirus. Last year this store at Jefferson Pointe Shopping Center replaced the customer service part of a Fort Wayne center it operates on Taylor Street.

Comcast Corp. announced measures designed to help communities it serves do more e-learning, teleworking and generally adjust to hunkering down at home to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The Philadelphia-based provider of broadband, phone and cable TV services to the Fort Wayne area is increasing download speeds of its Internet Essentials program to 25 megabits per second from 15 Mbps and offering newcomers to the service 60 days of it without charge. Upload speeds for the service are going to 3 Mbps from 2 Mbps.

The company also is suspending data plan caps, late payment fees and disconnections and opening access to all of its Xfinity WiFi hotspots to everyone without charge.

“While the vast majority of our customers do not come close to using 1TB of data in a month, we are pausing our data plans for 60 days giving all customers unlimited data for no additional charge,” Comcast said in an announcement.

The company announced in the spring of 2014 that it had started operating Wi-Fi hotspots in the Summit City and planned to have thousands of them up and running that year at no additional charge to its broadband subscribers.

The hotspots were established by giving homes and businesses both a password-protected private network and a public network.

Individuals who are not Xfinity broadband subscribers have been allowed two complimentary sessions per month, which last one hour. Beyond that, they have been charged for additional hours and allowed to purchase weekly or day passes.

Free access to the hotspots will be available for 60 days. “For a map of Xfinity WiFi hotspots, visit www.xfinity.com/wifi. Once at a hotspot, consumers should select the ‘xfinitywifi’ network name in the list of available hotspots, and then launch a browser,” the company said in an announcement.

Comcast launched Internet Essentials locally in 2011, providing broadband for $9.95 per month to families of children who qualified for free lunches under the National School Lunch Program. The Internet Essentials price hasn’t changed.

Of the 54,000 students enrolled in four school districts within Comcast’s Fort Wayne service territory at the time, 23,000 qualified for free lunches.

Northwest Allen County Schools and East Allen County Schools recently said they plan to seek the pathogen-avoidance benefits of social distancing by increasing their use of e-learning, which is basically conducting school remotely over the internet.

Information on the number of households signed up for the service was not available at the Fort Wayne level, but Michael Wilson, spokesman for Comcast operations in Indiana, said 252,000 Hoosiers were subscribed to it and the company hoped to see that increase.

Boosting the speed of Internet Essentials was important to “help the e-learning” he said. “It’s very dependent on video.”

Telemedicine also is dependent on video conferencing, which requires more bandwidth than many other internet uses. If it comes into greater use, it could bring social distancing benefits at a time when the health care system could use them.

Keeping broadband connections up can help with that, as it can with e-learning and teleworking, and Wilson said for the next 60 days Comcast plans to offer flexible payment options to customers who contact that company to let it know they cannot pay their bills. A similar heads up can prevent late payment fees.

“This situation is so fluid no one really knows what even the next two weeks holds as people change their habits around. Whether it’s self-quarantining or whatever, people still do have some need for connection,” he said.

Comcast expects its service to see increased use as people spend more time at home, and “we feel like our system is prepared right now,” he said.

Existing Internet Essentials customers will not need to do anything to get the faster speed as it is rolled out in mid-March. Comcast will send customers just signing up for the program a free self-installation kit, which includes a cable modem with a Wi-Fi router. There will be no credit check or term contract for the service.

“As our country continues to manage the COVID-19 emergency, we recognize that our company plays an important role in helping our customers stay connected – to their families, their workplaces, their schools, and the latest information about the virus – through the internet,” Dana Strong, president of Comcast Cable Consumer Services, said in a news release.

“We also know that for millions of low-income Americans who don’t have Internet service at home, this uncertain time is going to be even more difficult to manage. As schools and businesses close and families are encouraged, or even mandated, to stay home, Internet connectivity becomes even more important,” he said.

“Our hope is that broader access and faster speeds will help all of our Internet Essentials customers more easily work from home, access educational resources, obtain important government health care alerts, and stay in contact with their families during this difficult time.”

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