New Orleans No sooner are we dissecting Comcast and VP David Cohen’s remarks about metering broadband access than later in the day Gerry Smith, the Huffington Post tech writer, breaks the story of the FCC’s announcement of a settlement with the company over their foot dragging on their agreement to market a fixed rate broadband plan for 3 years as another condition of their $13+billion acquisition of NBC/Universal. The set of circumstances is frighteningly similar to the identical follow through failure of Comcast on its promises to provide a low-cost package to low income families to lower the digital divide.
According to the FCC as reported by Smith:
To win FCC approval for the $13.8 billion deal last January, Comcast pledged to “visibly offer and actively market” a standalone broadband service to customers for $50 a month for three years.
The FCC imposed the condition to ensure the merged company did not force customers to buy bundled services such as cable television when they only wanted high-speed Internet.
But the FCC said a year-long investigation found that Comcast failed to mention the standalone broadband service, known as “Performance Starter,” in mailings to many customers, did not make the service easy to find on its website, and did not offer the service at its retail locations.
“The bureau investigated and found that while Comcast had made some efforts to comply, it had failed to fully implement the condition,” FCC spokesman Neil Grace said.
Sound familiar? Indeed! This is precisely what our coalition has been saying to Comcast and its representatives from Cohen on down for months now about the so-called “Internet Essentials” program. Yes, they have “made some efforts to comply” with the order to offer access to the poor, but they have absolutely “failed to fully implement the condition.” And, in an identical bait-and-switch move, Comcast seems to have run the same scams on Performance Starter that we have found on Internet Essentials: not telling people, making it virtually impossible to access on website and phones, since these are folks without internet, and refusing to offer at accessible retail locations (only 1 location in all of Harris County where they have a dozen outlets!). Remember in the greater Houston area they have only allowed about 2000 to survive the maze to get the service and in Philly, I’ll be kind, and say less than 500 lower income families have been able to gain access. Sign our Petition here!
Cohen has conceded to us directly in a recent meeting in Philadelphia that, yes, if a lower income family calls the regular Comcast number rather than making it through their maze to the special Internet Essentials number that Comcast will up-sell poor families to their higher end access offerings and not the lower access program they promised via Internet Essentials and the FCC order. Smith mentions our protests and efforts obliquely in the story and acknowledges that the Internet Essentials program has been much more “controversial.” The reports Comcast shared with us indicated hardly 40,000 had been enrolled in the program nationally, though Smith and the Huffington Post somehow are reporting a figure more than four times that of 160,000, which seems very suspicious and unlikely. Comcast would have had to pull a rabbit out of a hat to achieve that in the short time since our meetings with them about these figures several months ago. Their spokesperson was quoted in another dissembling remark as saying they will have a report soon. Sounds a little bit like a report of election results in Iran, where they are manufacturing the numbers before the vote count.
I would like to believe that this announcement is a sign that the FCC is finally standing up to Comcast. They claim this is the result of a year-long investigation. The fine was less than a million, so the FCC may have spent more shuffling papers on this for a year than Comcast is actually paying in a fine. There was no mention that the FCC is looking into the Internet Essentials failure which would have seemed to have been something they could have done at the same time.
The only real hope in all of this besides the fact that Comcast has had to admit that they were caught red handed is that Senator Al Franken and his committee seems to be following this closely. Perhaps now we can move his attention to the shame and scandal of digital access to the poor!