FCC’s Connect2Compete Disconnected at Cox Cable & Payday Embarrasses Chase

New Orleans    Remember the poor…low and moderate income families who will always be with us?  Well, more evidence keeps piling up that when it comes to internet access and a lifeline to the 21st Century, the “volunteer” efforts by the big cable companies are continuing to make the FCC’s claims of lowering the digital divide a tragic joke.

I listened to calls yesterday made by an eligible mother with school age children to Cox Cable.  Cox along with Times-Warner and several other companies supposedly after claiming in late 2011 that they were going to following the flawed promises of the Comcast settlement to provide less than $10 per month internet and a $150 computer, joined the new FCC organized Connect2compete effort to finally implement the program in the fall of 2012.  The Connect2Compete program like much of Comcast’s program has been something of a stealth campaign, but we continue to be committed to seeing if low income families can finally access lower cost internet.

This woman having heard about the program from Local 100, called Cox Cable in New Orleans on the only available number.  Cox had no idea what she was talking about?  Low priced cable?  No way!  Connect2compete?  Huh?  Then she was transferred to a technical person when she persisted in asking how to apply.  The technical person had the same responses which all added up to “no clue.”  The technical person finally transferred her to a Cox manager who after several minutes of hearing the woman describe what she had heard about the program finally replied, “oh, yeah, we tried that program with a couple of schools in the fall, but the program was terminated in January, is there anything else I can help you with?”  That’s it.  Nada!

An earlier member had also called Cox Cable in New Orleans and been told there was no such program but that she would be called back.  Miracles never cease, and she was called back and told to call another number with Connect2compete.  When she called that number, she was not able to get through on her zip code to the automatic system.  The zip code was for the famous 9th ward.  When she called again and entered another zip code, she could get no farther into the system because you had to have an authorization code passed out by one of few schools that were engaged by Cox in the program, I presume.   It hardly matters, since she was stopped there.

Whatever this connect2compete is, it is categorically NOT a program to extend internet access to the poor.  The FCC and their cable company comrades should be shamefaced at the cynicism of these efforts.

Perhaps being publicly shamed by your own con games even works every once in a while!  Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, in a rare retreat from his usual “damn the torpedoes” arrogance, reportedly admitted that their ripping off Chase customers for thousands of dollars as the collectors for payday lending companies was even past the pale for Chase.  He swears that he is going to fix the problem.  I’m not sure which problem he’s going to fix.  The one where Chase is collecting money from their customers in one the states where payday lending is banned or the one where they are allowing their buddies to hit an account with collections multiple times and run up thousands of dollars of overdraft charges to Chase’s own benefit rather than their own.  Let’s hope it’s both, but when it comes to banking and shame, there’s really only so much we can count on.

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New York Times Whitewashes Comcast; Is Connect2Compete a Ghost PR Program?

DOL Secretary Hilda L. Solis at Press Conference on Connect2Complete

New Orleans   In an amazingly shallow, puff piece that might almost have come out of the Comcast marketing and public relations department, “Mixed Response to Comcast in Expanding Net Access” by Amy Chozick about the only dark spot in this incredible whitewash.

Comcast set up shop in Chicago in May 2011, a few months after its $13.75 billion takeover of NBC Universal. As part of its approval for the deal, the F.C.C. required the company to devise a plan to make broadband available to the poor. Comcast reluctantly agreed, according to a person involved in the merger who could not speak publicly about private conversations. A Comcast spokesman said the company had volunteered the plan. Broadband subscriptions represent the main driver of Comcast’s $55.8 billion in annual revenue. The company and its competitors have largely reached saturation among households that can afford high-speed Internet. That leaves the poor as one of the industry’s main areas of growth.   “In the long, long run, yes, I hope we’re creating future Comcast customers,” said David L. Cohen, executive vice president of the Comcast Corporation. He added: “There’s no bait and switch here. This is a community investment.”

On Saturday, the United States Conference of Mayors gave Comcast and Mr. Emanuel an award for the Internet Essentials collaboration.  Rather than sell Internet Essentials in its normal bundle, Comcast has established a separate sales team that works directly with community leaders. The company has enlisted hundreds of Internet Essentials volunteers who spread the word about the program.

Let me see, is this the same Comcast where the Times reported that Comcast was making money even at the $9.99 monthly rate off of the poor?

Let me see, is this the same Comcast where the FCC in June 2012 agreed with the scores of complaints filed by our members that they were unable to access the cheaper program and while slapping the company with an $800,000 fine for not following through on the contingent commitment for the service also found that they in fact were bait-and-switching the poor to buy the bundled service?  The FCC found Comcast’s handling of this so bad that they added another year (2015) for them to have to do the program.    In fact the “separate sales team” makes the program inaccessible and from what we have found is largely the government relations department , in order words  more lobbyists working for David Cohen, identified as the “chief lobbyist” for Comcast in this piece, which my friends is exactly how you get these kind of awards from the U. S. Conference of Mayors.

None of this is anywhere in this story.

In fact the mixed response seems to be inferring that rather than the pathetic non-existent outreach being done by Comcast to move this program, Chozick seems to almost be saying that Comcast is overly aggressive in promoting its “Internet Essentials” program.

But as the program gains popularity, the company has come under criticism, accused of overreaching in its interactions with local communities — handing out brochures with the company logo during parent-teacher nights at public schools, for instance, or enlisting teachers and pastors to spread the word to students and congregations.

Let’s be clear.   Comcast is absolutely exploiting school systems and anyone else it can to “sell” Internet Essentials, while it makes a profit on the program and laughs all of the way to the bank having already swallowed the NBC/Universal merger.  When we have met with the company in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, when the subject of their ineffective and inadequate outreach comes up they point fingers at the schools for not doing a better job!  There must be a misunderstanding embedded in Comcast at every level that somehow believes that public school administrators and others should be their free labor.  In meetings with Comcast officials, including Cohen, any suggestion that outreach should be extensive and compensated, gets a response from him crying “shakedown.”  Cohen and Comcast are committed to a predatory business model in handling a public utility that is in fact essential but is essential to lower income families trying to crawl over the inequality gap that seems fundamental to Comcast’s business model.

Don’t even get me started on why Chozick and the Times bought the notion that 100,000 unaudited, self-certified users according to Comcast equals “popularity” compared to the millions we have documented are in their services areas and eligible under even their restrict definitions of poverty.  The very failure, now penalized by the FCC, to enroll more families should force a change in this conversation, not congratulations for a pathetic breach of the public trust and airwaves.

But, I should say at least Comcast is pretending to go through the motions because there was an FCC order as a quid pro quo for their merger.  The so-called private-public partnership of Connect2Compete in our experience is a ghost program making it virtually 100% hand waving public relations.  The FCC announced with some fanfare, yes, an article in the Times quoting the chairman of the FCC that Cox Cable and Times-Warner had voluntarily agreed to implement the “Comcast” style low-cost internet option.  Poppycock!  Local 100 and our allies in services areas of these companies throughout Louisiana and Texas reached out through email and letters to Cox and Times-Warner for details on these programs last summer since the FCC had announced they were to begin in the spring of last year.  No answers!  But, that’s almost understandable, since there are no programs!  We have asked city council members in various cities who interact with the companies on licensing, and they have also failed to get a response.

The FCC is claiming that Connect2Compete will solve this problem and get more folks the cheaper internet and $150 computers.  The list of partners on the website is long.  We know some of them.  They have virtually no outreach capability.  You have to go to the internet and navigate the site to even figure out how try to apply.

But, hey, call me Joe Sausagehead, but the next time I write on this we will have had our members go through the paces at Cox and Times-Warner, as well as doubling back with Comcast, and we will see – and report – what that experience is really like.  We’re not holding our breath, so please don’t hold yours either.

This whole cable company shuck-and-jive about offering internet access to some poor families with children in school, too often aided and abetted by federal agencies (read FCC) and elected officials wherever Comcast and other contributions have found willingly open hands, just about provides a the textbook definition of a tragic and heartless scam.   It ought to be a crime, but instead it’s now an applauded, award winning business model.

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