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Comcast CYA Doesn’t Mask Contradictions and Poor Outreach

New Orleans  The combined meetings and negotiations with Comcast representatives about their “internet essentials” program to provide low cost access and computers to lower income families seems to have finally provoked the company into putting out some numbers on their performance.  That’s the good news.   Reading the numbers is the bad news.

No wonder our ally, ACTION United in Pennsylvania, when surveying lower income families couldn’t find any who knew about Comcast program or had gotten Internet through the program.  It turns out only about 450 families (according to Comcast figures) were enrolled in the entire city of Philadelphia.

In Harris County where Houston is located, Local 100’s survey of Head Start workers and parents who were eligible even under the restrictive guidelines Comcast had established had also produced a big fat zero.  It goes without saying that Houston is among the largest cities in the country and there are a lot of lower income families, but there the program claims to have only been able to muster a bit over 2000 enrollees.

Our experience with our members in Houston trying to enroll this week not only puts a lie to some of the public relations claims to the Comcast “launch report,” but also proves why it may be easier for a rich man to get to heaven than for a poor family to access the Comcast program that is supposedly designed to lower the digital divide.

We monitored some of these calls and helped the families file complaints to the FCC on what happened, but here are some of the highlights.  One woman was told that they did not have a $9.95 program but she could sign up for $29.99 basic.   When she kept pressing they referred her to an 855 number which is the national Internet Essentials number.   At that number they also claimed ignorance when it got to the computer issue and gave her the Dell computer number in Austin, Texas.  Dell said they didn’t know anything about a $150 computer but they had a $450 job, but it would take a credit or debit card to acquire.

You think that’s wild.  Listen to this one.  Another fellow from Houston called to Comcast Internet Essentials at its 713 Houston area code and was answered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  They asked him for his name, address, zip, and phone.  Then they told him that there was no program for $9.95, the lowest was for $29.99.  Sound familiar?  Stay with me!  Pushing for Internet Essentials they then produced an 800#.  Five minutes later they offered an Internet Essentials 855#.   They said they had a $149.99 computer.  When he asked about taxes or shipping, he then heard about debit and credit cards, like all food stamp eligible families have VISA cards or American Express!  They then gave him an 800# which turned out to be to Dell Computer in Austin.  When he asked Dell for the Internet Essentials computer deal with Comcast, he was informed in no uncertain terms that there was no longer an Internet Essentials program, and that program had been stopped two months ago because Comcast didn’t renew the contract with Dell.  Needless to say the end of this conversation involved a $400+ computer!

David Cohen, the Comcast VP, identified with the “launch report” and much of this dissembling seems not to have a clue about what is happening on city streets or on the phone lines within Comcast or at the computer sources.  All of this seems to be shaping up as a crude hoax being perpetrated on the poor!  Is this a shell game or what?

Meanwhile reading Cohen’s overview on their website and his remarks to the press, he seems to believe that “outreach” to the poor is hundreds of meetings and lunches with politicians and public officials around the country.  Back slapping is not the same as lowering the digital divide and Cohen, once a much touted Philly city official, actually should know that better than most.  The outreach from their report seems to be to get schools to shill for the program, which they are ill equipped to do or in one very intriguing “reform” in the report they want “community partners” to somehow buy the Internet Essentials program in bulk.  I’m not sure to do what?  Re-sell?  Preposterous!

Equally rich to read is the fact that Cohen and Comcast are pretending that this is all just so much do-good work by the company and therefore they should not be judged by results, metrics, or whether or not the much promoted program actually lowers the digital divide. They want applause, but not accountability.

Maybe Cohen didn’t get the memo from his bosses at Comcast on this, but it’s a matter of public record with the FCC.  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).

I’m not sure why city officials, federal bureaucrats and the entire tech savvy community is not up in arms about the Comcast shell game around the digital divide.  Maybe it’s a Mitt Romney “don’t worry about the poor” kinda deal, where Comcast just assumes that no one cares if they deliver on this or not.

Yo, Comcast, our coalition of groups cares.  Come on, man!