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McClatchy-Tribune  08/22/2014 11:18 PM ET
Internet service at low prices for low-income households: Faster speeds from CenturyLink, and 'amnesty' on unpaid bills from Comcast [The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. :: ]

Aug. 22--Internet service is getting faster, but generally speaking it isn't getting cheaper.

As Comcast and CenturyLink upgrade their connections, they're building in accompanying price increases. And while Google Fiber is contemplating offering premium "gigabit" Internet speeds in Portland, it's also contemplating premium prices.

The region's big Internet service providers are containing costs in one key area, though, even as they boost speeds: Programs for low-income residents who can't afford full freight on their Internet connections.

Landline phones have long had a low-income option, called the Telephone Assistance Program. In Oregon, it reduces monthly bills by $12.75. (The discounts actually apply to some cell phone bills, too.)

Today, Internet service has become as essential as the telephone was in an earlier era. It's a basic prerequisite for news, job searches, shopping and for many types of public assistance.

A survey this summer for Business Oregon, the state's economic development agency, found that 82 percent of Oregonians have broadband at home -- unchanged from 2010. But for those with household incomes below $30,000 annually, the number drops to 68 percent.

Comcast started its $10-a-month program to win regulatory approval of its purchase of NBC, but it's continued and expanded the option after that requirement expired. CenturyLink has been quietly offering its program for years, but is upgrading it substantially as it begins rolling out super speedy fiber-to-the-home service in parts of Portland.

Since 2011, Comcast says, more than 8,900 families in Oregon and Southwest Washington have participated in its Internet Essentials program.

There could be more options this time next year: Google Fiber offers a free Internet service to customers who pay a one-time installation feeds -- with no income threshold for eligibility.

Frontier Communications, which serves Gresham, Beaverton, Hillsboro and other close-in suburbs and rural areas, offers low-income plans in some markets but not in the Portland area.

While the companies are obviously offering a discount, they're not necessarily losing money on the program. If they reach customers who otherwise could not afford service, and their networks can support the very modest additional traffic the low-income subscribers bring, then any additional revenue is profit.

And of course they generate some degree of goodwill by publicizing the programs.

Here are low-cost options from each company, and what's new this fall:

Price: $10 a month (plus taxes and fees); one-year commitment required. CenturyLink offers a basic "netbook" computer for $150 with a two-year commitment.

Speed: 1.5 megabits per second (See below for a faster option)

Eligibility: Must qualify for state Telephone Assistance Program, which can be met with qualification for the National School Lunch Program, low-income home emergency assistance, federal housing assistance, Medicaid eligibility, and various other qualifications.

What's new: CenturyLink is bringing fast fiber-optics to select (and unspecified) Portland neighborhoods. Internet Basics customers with fiber service can get 40 mbps downloads at the $10 monthly price.

Price: $10 a month (plus taxes and fees); Comcast also offers a basic computer for $150.

Speed: 5 megabits per second downloads (uploads are 1 mbps)

Eligibility: Subscribers must have one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program (for a family of four, that's annual income below $44,123) and must not have subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the past 90 days.

What's new: Comcast is offering up to six months of free service to new program participants, and "amnesty" for families that have unpaid Comcast bills more than one year old. Previously, prospective subscribers with unpaid bills were not eligible to participate.

Price: Free, with a $300, one-time construction fee. (Alternately, customers can choose to pay $25 a month for 12 months.)

Speeds: 5 megabits per second downloads (uploads are 1 mbps)

Eligibility: No income threshold, but subscribers must be in a Google Fiber service area. Google hasn't committed to Portland yet, and won't serve all neighborhoods if it does come.

-- Mike Rogoway; twitter: @rogoway; 503-294-7699

 

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