by Max Brantley
Lindsey Millar wrote this week about Comcast's follow-through on the requirement that it provide low-cost Internet service to poor families with school children as part of the deal by which it took over NBC.
More here from a union and community groups, including Arkansas Commmunity Organizations, that have been pressing Comcast because of the difficulty of obtaining the supposed service. A national report by Comcast shows a tiny number have been served and, if any have received the benefit in Arkansas, the number was too low to report.
In response to Local 100 United Labor Unions and our community partners ACTION United, Arkansas Community Organizations, A Community Voice, ACORN International, and others and direct actions and meetings in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Houston, Little Rock and Shreveport over the past 2 weeks, Comcast this week issued a report about the first five months of the Internet Essentials Program. The report claims to be satisfied that nationally more than 40,000 of the 3,000,000 people that Comcast had declared eligible were enrolled in the program, according to their unaudited or witnessed surveys.
The results reported by Comcast are very disappointing: slightly over 2000 in Harris County; not even 450 in Philadelphia where Comcast is headquartered: slightly more than 1000 in all of Louisiana; and so few in Arkansas the number was not included in the “Launch Report” issued by VP David Cohen. Surveys done by ACTION United in Philadelphia found not one family enrolled out of over 100 contacted. A similar survey conducted among eligible Head Start workers and HISD workers also produced no enrollments in over 100 surveyed by Local 100 in Houston.
Meetings with Comcast representatives in Philadelphia, Houston, and elsewhere have been very disappointing because Comcast has up until this report resisted any demands for transparency or accountability, insisting that there were no numerical goals despite the coalition’s entreaties that Comcast set specific benchmarks and work with community partners to reach substantive performance goals to lower the digital divide. In a 9-point program the coalition has been demanding for months that Comcast lower the barriers and obstacles to participation and stop using “internet essentials” as a marketing program and begin implementing a serious program get access to lower income families. The coalition was in fact pleased that Comcast announced some reforms of the program including an expansion of the number of eligible families past just free school lunch eligible.
In calls to enroll families to Comcast’s program this week, Local 100 has continued to find almost total resistance. Calls to 713 numbers are answered in Florida. Callers are told the $9.95 program for access does not exist. When inquiring about the $150 computers, callers are routed to Dell Computer in Austin, which informed several families that Comcast had cancelled the program and that only $400 computers are available! Furthermore, Comcast and its suppliers are insisting that all payments for computers be made in cash or on credit (?!?) cards by lower income families rather than through their Comcast building.
Local 100 and its allies are demanding a wholesale overhaul because the program, especially its outreach largely through overtaxed schools, who are hardly in the business of selling Comcast services, are feeble and inadequate. Meanwhile Cohen for Comcast insisted this week that the company still did not need goals for the program but instead wanted applause for taking some initiative.
Cohen’s spin for Comcast does not align with the facts or history. The Internet Essentials program was required by the 2011 Memorandum Opinion and Order from the FCC regarding the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal. In the agreement, FCC requires that Comcast “substantially increase broadband adoption in low income homes throughout Comcast’s service area” (pg. 143).
It raises red flags for the coalition that the program has no goals and without any metrics to measure success, they can claim at every step they are successful without making substantial strides to close the digital divide. David Cohen claims that Comcast’s "goal is to do better," but in the absence of clear goals, the program has no teeth and is merely a commitment to PR rather than digital inclusion. Local 100 and its allies are assisting families unable to access the program in filing formal complaints with the FCC for Comcast’s “deceptive advertising” of the program without a real program in evidence.
In all of our surveys, outreach was identified as one of the biggest barriers to receiving the program. Comcast’s report cites low digital literacy and acknowledgement of relevancy of internet as a huge barrier to enrollment. We believe that comprehensive active outreach, as opposed to passive flyers, haphazardly distributed through school children, is essential to increased enrollment. We are concerned that the first recipients are often the low-hanging fruit and families who are most responsive to opportunities. Comcast’s claims its plan moving forward is to work more closely with local community organizations, libraries, school districts and faith-based organizations. By relying on our cash-strapped community institutions, Comcast is putting the real work of the program on institutions that are struggling to provide essential services to our communities in these tough economic times without accepting its own responsibility in the community or its promises and enrichments won through the FCC process federally.
The coalition has been pushing Comcast to adopt goals of up to 50% access in the next three years and certainly no less than 25% access of eligible low income families. Comcast has continued to respond that it is unwilling to set goals. In Philadelphia for example even 20% would add 30,000 families. In Harris County the number would be more than double at even 20%. The current Comcast effort is simply unacceptable.
Local 100 United Labor Unions, ACTION United, A Community Voice, Arkansas Community Organizations and other allies across the country call on Comcast to set real goals and make them matter.