ConnectHome is Not Enough to Bridge the Digital Divide

connect-home-e1437087538673New Orleans     In Durant, Oklahoma in the heart of the Choctaw Nationa, President Obama essentially likened his new program, ConnectHome, to a “dreamweaver,” saying that America has “an interest in making sure [young people] can achieve [their] dreams.”   The pilot program is touted as providing internet access to 275000 households containing 200000 children in 27 cities and one Native American tribal area. The program developed through the Department of Housing and Urban Development chose the cities competitively and the list is wide ranging including a little bit for everyone in Albany, GA; Atlanta, GA; Baltimore, MD; Baton Rouge, LA; Boston, MA; Camden, NJ; Choctaw Nation, OK; Cleveland, OH; Denver, CO; Durham, NC; Fresno, CA; Kansas City, MO; Little Rock, AR; Los Angeles, CA; Macon, GA; Memphis, TN; Meriden, CT; Nashville, TN; New Orleans, LA; New York, NY; Newark, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Rockford, IL; San Antonio, TX; Seattle, WA; Springfield, MA; Tampa, FL; and Washington, DC.

Looking at the details, though this is a very, very, very little bit for anyone. This is not a bridge across the digital divide so much as a small ball of twine pitched over a ravine pretending to be a rope bridge. While low-and-moderate income families are falling to the bottom, Wiley Coyote style, let’s look at the devilish details.

It’s not free. It’s some free. Supposedly, Google Fiber is going to offer some free Internet connections to some, but certainly not all, public housing residents in Atlanta, Durham, North Carolina, Kansas City, Missouri, and Nashville. Those are the fortunate ones. For the rest of the supposed beneficiaries with little thanks to eight different internet providers they might qualify to pay $9.95 per month. The announcement from the White House and other reports are also vague on whether all of the rest really will be offered the $9.95 plan, so there may be more sadness to come in other housing projects.

This is the same bait-and-switch on closing the digital divide that we have seen earlier with Comcast that has under-performed and scammed on the program, even though it was expressly required by the FCC as a condition of its merger with NBC/Universal, and became one of many Achilles heels that blocked the Comcast monopoly acquisition of Times-Warner Cable. Had Comcast spent any money on anything other than public relations to make the program work, many times a quarter million households around the country, including in housing projects, would already have internet.

The New York Times in their puff piece about the ConnectHome program called out Cox Communications for special praise as one the eight providers. Unlike the Times we don’t have memory loss about this. Cox was also one of the companies that the FCC had previously touted as having volunteered, along with Times-Warner, to institute a $9.95 plan without an FCC order, just out of the goodness of their corporate heart, much like this pilot. In Baton Rouge and New Orleans efforts by ACORN, Local 100, and our allies, were completely unsuccessful in finding as much as heartbeat for their initiative. One spokesperson for the company in New Orleans claimed that they had tried putting out the word for a couple of weeks in the school district, though no one could remember what happened or exactly when or knew if anyone had gotten the word to sign-up, and they refused to commit to allowing us to spread the word, because no one locally was sure if the program continued. Welcome to nothing.

When ACORN negotiated with Rogers, one of the big three telecoms in Canada, the company almost immediately agreed to provide a $9.95 program for all public housing residents in Toronto, and has subsequently improved the program as we made further demands. Friends, these companies make money on these plans, this is no “favor” to the poor, but a business opportunity on the low end of the market. Although I should add, that it depends on whether a family can qualify, which has also been the Comcast problem for many as the company dredged up unpaid bills at the addresses from years ago as excuses not to approve applicants who made it through their rat maze.

Julian Castro, the new head of HUD, wants to make this a signature program in the little time he has to make a mark at the agency, but what he is talking about is making broadband connections part of the embedded infrastructure of newly built housing. Unfortunately there’s not much being built, and basically that just saves money for the internet providers.

Obama has been doing better at this stuff. This program is a back slide. This is just a head fake example of the common deceit of neoliberalism’s false promises of public-private partnerships where the government aids and abets and the public gets squat. And, in this case the digital divide just gets wider.

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Neoliberal FCC Half-Step to Low Income Access to the Internet

blue-wire-knot-364-364x223New Orleans       It would be nice to read the report of a proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and embrace it with open arms and a wide smile.  After all even a small step forward in bridging the digital divide is important, but this will be a half-step at that, and it’s easy to see the headwinds forming already in the murkiness that accompanies any understanding of the program or the problem.

Briefly, Wheeler is talking about expanding the Universal Service Fund to allow lower income families to access high-speed internet by choosing either phone service or internet or in some undefined way picking both services.    Since President Reagan’s Administration, the Universal Service Fund provides “lifeline” telephone service, which increasingly means mobile phones virtually for free.  The Fund is financed not by public dollars and taxpayers but by assessing telecommunications companies an adjustable fee every quarter on the telecom’s interstate end-user revenues. The first quarter of 2015 the rate was around 17% and the fund collects and distributes billions annually, about $9 billion in 2013 for example.   If you read your telephone bill line-by-line, you can see the charge, and if you think about it for a minute, you can also start to see the problem.

The FCC is merely the facilitator and distributor.  The funds come from companies and therefore consumers, rather than being equally shared by all citizens as a public good.   It may have been good enough for Reagan, but despite all of the genuflecting in his direction, the new gang is not the old gang, and this crowd has been attacking the Fund because there was some occasional double-dipping in households having more than one cellphone.  Oh, horrors!

The Fund provides a subsidy of close to $10 per month.  The Times’ report is already, erroneously, setting the table for the fight when it reports that “debate over just how far a $9.25 credit can go in covering the cost of broadband is sure to arise.”  Well, it shouldn’t, except that this is the world of neoliberalism now and not entitlement, so corporations whine, and citizens’ wail.  The FCC and all experts were clear in the Comcast/NBC Universal order creating a $10 access program for internet, which the company flaunted, that even at that rate, the company would make money.  Not great, heaping wheelbarrow loads of cash like they are all used to making, but, yes, still make money, so let’s put a stake in the heart of that argument from the start.

Then there is the question of speed.   After ACORN worked with Rogers, the huge Canadian telecom, to put in a $10 program in Toronto, we had a fight to get them to provide enough speed so that users could stream or use the internet for job applications and the like.  Since broadband companies are trying to market different price points for higher speed, you can already envision the fight to make sure lower income access isn’t degraded.   Finally, the poverty standard of 135% also just isn’t enough to bridge the digital divide either.   This proposal already feels like the poor trying to squeeze into internet heaven through the eye of a needle, not the other way around.   And, this is all when the proposal is still pristine, long before the rest of the political fight begins in earnest and Congress starts mucking about.

So why can’t we spend a small slice of $10 or $20 billion and directly subsidize as an entitlement the access to internet for all families at 300% of poverty guideline, and, heck, throw in some of the Universal Service Fund as part of the funding stream with a hit on ISP providers as well, since this is internet.

There is a limit to what companies and consumers can carry.  That’s why we have a government and taxes, so we can all equally share on programs that advance the common good for everyone.  Until we get to that point, the digital divide will just keep getting wider and wider, leaving more and more, lower income and working families behind.

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Comcast’s Internet Essentials and Lousy Customer Service Brought Them Down, Too

comcast-sucks-2Austin       The failure of Comcast’s monopoly-merger mania would almost be Biblical in the “pride cometh before a fall” sense if it were not so predictable, and if, we, and thankfully a whole lot of other people in a whole lot of other places, had not repeatedly tried to tell them so and warn them repeatedly.  But, it’s really not Biblical, it’s more a P.T. Barnum problem of their thinking that because they could fool the people once, they could fool them all the time.

And, speaking of pride, I swelled up a bit reading the lead paragraphs in the New York Times analyzing their mega-fail and starting with the fake digital divide effort Comcast pretended to make on their so-called “internet essentials” program where the FCC had ordered that they provide a low-cost access to lower income families in order to gobble up NBC/Universal, and as we have frequently outlined they spend more on wining and dining local politicians and making so-called contributions to groups they wanted to have stand up for them before the FCC than they ever spent on actually doing the outreach or following through on the program.  Though they claim that only paid a fine on one condition of the order, they gloss over the fact that they had to pay $750,000 and add a year for their huge failure and fake effort on helping to bridge the digital divide.

This Comcast scam is too egregious and finally its comeuppance is too delicious not to quote in full:

“Critics, however, call Internet Essentials, a public relations stunt that failed to deliver on its promise, with restrictive qualifications, limited reach and poor service.  Comcast committed to making the program available to 2.5 million low-income households.  The company announced in March that the program had connected 450,000 families – or about 17 percent of eligible households….’Regulators were sold a bill of goods,’ said John Bergmayer…at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that has criticized the effectiveness of Internet Essentials…’I’d be curious whether they spent more time marketing in D.C. to policy makers than to people who qualify for the program.’”

That’s not a curiosity, that’s a statement of fact, and not just in DC but in any city hall and governmental jurisdiction where they operated.

In the same piece the report says, “Comcast officials say that the population is difficult to reach and that getting people to sign up for the service has been harder than they thought.”  Balderdash!  We told David Cohen, the chief flak, repeatedly and to his face that handing out leaflets to beleaguered school teachers was NOT an outreach program.  WE told him to his face, in writing, and repeatedly up and down the Comcast chain in Congressmen’s offices and with his governmental relations folks that the program was too complex, there was no follow through, you couldn’t sign up, they tried to upsell people, the computers didn’t work, etc, etc, and they accused us of “shaking them down.”  Look who is busted now.

Turns out now that the deal has collapse, that they also couldn’t get over the fact as well that their customers, many of whom are also voters, don’t like high priced, crummy cable and internet coupled with rude and non-existent customer service.  Really?  Is that a surprise to anyone but Comcast?  And, did Brian Roberts, the Comcast chief, really think promising the FCC’s Tom Wheeler that they would deliver “first in class service” had any credibility whatsoever.  Justice was sure there were antitrust problems and the FCC was sure not only that the deal was not in the public interest, but also that there was no way that they could hold Comcast accountable.  Comcast proved that to them on NBC Universal.

It’s not over.

They may call Philadelphia their corporate headquarters and they may be waving around the fact they are building a second high rise, but they are now facing a franchise renewal hearing.  What goes around, comes around and our campaign partner, Action United in Pennsylvania will undoubtedly be at the hearing to remind Comcast how lame their internet essentials program has been, how terrible their service is, and what they demand Comcast is going to have to do to get right with the people in the City of Brotherly Love, as opposed to Wall Street and Washington.

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Set the Cities Free to Provide Broadband Internet!

internet-openNew Orleans     The FCC, thankfully, is moving forward on a new rule that many believe will preempt the fact that a patchwork quilt of legislation has emerged in twenty different states to block the efforts of cities to create their own broadband networks.  We’ll watch closely how this developed.  Susan Crawford, the Harvard professor, who I have often cited as an expert on internet access and the monopoly efforts of the big companies, has long argued that municipal systems may be the only way to really provide equitable and affordable, high quality internet, so this could be a breakthrough.

The map of the 20 states that currently effectively ban it, and the creative ways they do so, is an interesting look at the geography of monopoly power as it is exercised by Comcast, AT&T, Times-Warner, and their junior partners.   Thanks to the work of Ars Technica we have a list, and here’s a quick summary of the twists and turns they have put in the way of cities wanting to break their stranglehold.

 

  •          Arkansas allows only cities which own their own municipal utilities.
  •          California blocks the financial tools to finance construction
  •          Colorado requires a referendum by the voters.
  •          Florida requires a special tax.
  •          Louisiana requires a local referendum.
  •          Michigan cities can do so only if they bid out the service and receive fewer than three bids.
  •          Minnesota requires approval by 65% of local voters.
  •          Nebraska says you can do it but you can’t sell at retail and compete.
  •          North Carolina blocks municipal financing.
  •          Pennsylvania, the home of Comcast, bans cities “if a local telephone company” already provides broadband even if it charges outrageous prices and offers poor quality service.
  •          Tennessee allows cities to build broadband only in “historically unserved areas” and if it is done in joint ventures with a private company.
  •          Utah’s law builds in procedural and accounting requirements that make it impossible.
  •          Virginia says you can build it but you can’t charge lower than private sector providers.
  •          Washington says public utilities can’t offer direct service to customers
  •          Wisconsin requires a public hearing, blocks subsidies, and prescribes minimum prices

And then let’s don’t forget Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas that essentially have just outlawed the ability of cities to do so without any bells and whistles or pretense that there’s an eye of the needle that the poor Joe might crawl through to get to internet heaven.  To me this all reads like a snapshot of democracy perverted by money, the lobbyists who push it, and the monopoly companies that dole it out for their sole self-interest.  This is a Hall of Shame list, where only money talks and low and moderate income people are forced on the other side of the equity and internet divide in service to profits and the politicians who hide behind the complexities with their hands out to the companies and their backs to the people.

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Policing Internet Rip-offs are a Problem Demanding a Fix

f_10927037_1New Orleans    There are standard internet rip-offs, like the scams offering suckers millions being held just for you or my favorite recent one from the representative of the head of the International Monetary Fund.  There are the popular ones where a friend is stuck in Timbuktu and needs you to wire money somewhere so they can get home after supposedly being ripped off in that foreign land.  All of these are wild and personal.  A standard rule of using the internet has become not to open any email from someone unknown with an attachment.  More perniciously, there are the hustles offering thousands of dollars to the underemployed by working at home, which prey on desperation rather than greed that seem even worse to me.

I worry about all of these standard scams and their predatory impact as they con new users trying to crawl over the internet divide.  Spam scammers are hard to stop on the internet because nobody is in charge, meaning really that it’s all caveat emptor and we’re on our own.  So maybe that’s an acceptable tradeoff for some to have a free and open internet.  Let’s leave that argument for another day.  I think we can agree that there’s a different obligation for predators on sites that we need to trust and find reliable.

            Take our friends with craigslist.com which we all use regularly.  The free ad service regularly attracts fake applicants and job services, but that’s a fair trade for the good people who are found there.  But, recently the scams are becoming more expensive and dangerous.  For example cars and trailers advertised with attractive prices and multiple pictures that are really just trolling sites for suckers.  Having a 1998 Chevy Suburban with 150,000 miles I need to always keep looking, OK, and we need a trailer to put at the ACORN Farm and elsewhere, so there’s just cause there as well.   The other day I looked at a trailer with a fair price of $4200.  There was no phone so you had to email the advertiser which is not uncommon.  They replied asking if you wanted more information and pictures, and when you said, sure, suddenly it was someone supposedly in the military who needed $2000 lickety-split and would also supposedly drive the trailer from Maryland to anywhere if you were willing to pay them via E-Bay.  Yeah, right!  But, these deals will in fact catch people, because they are just honest enough to be credible unless you are naturally skeptical and suspicious, as some of us tend to be.

            You might say it’s still a good trade, but I’m not sure.

            Even priceline.com which is a commercial site a long way up from craigslist.com is not immune from the everyday rip-off in league with their partners.  Have you ever read the fine print on their site?  If you hit the wrong button and enter the date incorrectly, you’re ripped.  Their website, their customer support service, and their 800 numbers all repeat that if you make a mistake, you’re burned to a crisp with no relief.  Avis Rent-a-Car almost gloats in offering to double charge you, even though a lot of their business comes from Priceline.  Hertz to its credit will honor a change if they have the cars, but you have to be able to make the change on the Priceline website which won’t allow it, which I bet Hertz knows as well.

            Hidden charges, sucker punches, and direct thievery are all silent crimes on the internet, and I could go on for days with examples I’ve heard from our members over and over.  There was a report the other day that experts estimate that there are 40-60,000 fake and ripoff websites selling drugs without a prescription and this year so far the Federal Trade Commission has tried to take 4700 of them off-line, but hasn’t been able to make any progress with 4000.

If they can’t stop clear, open-and-shut illegality, what chance does the average Joe and Jane have of finding consumer justice on the internet, even as e-commerce becomes bigger by the minute all around the world?  When the only solution is writing a letter or sending a complaint via email to the new, embattled Federal Consumer Protection Bureau, you just know we’re up an internet creek without much of a paddle.  We need something better than this don’t we?

 

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The Digital Divide is a Class Divide

google-fiber-620x426New Orleans     The Pew Research Center says that only 43% of households nationally with annual incomes of less than $25,000 have access to the internet compared to 70% nationally with broadband. Only 55% of African-Americans have broadband internet. Why? Well, not surprisingly, surveys conducted by independent sources, including pollsters hired by the Wall Street Journal to look at the results of Google’s super-fast Fiber service in Kansas City find that cost is increasingly the mountain creating the great divide in this area between rich and poor.

The Journal looked closely at the impact of Google Fiber’s entry into Kansas City in 2012, including its claim that its effort in KC was not just about fast service but also about bridging the digital divide. Their surveys found that in six low-income neighborhoods only 10% of residents were subscribing to Google Fiber with another 5% buying into a Google service for a slower speed that was free for seven years but required a $300 installation fee paid out at $25 per month. Some residents when interviewed found all of the Google pitch confusing to say the least.

ACORN in Canada and with our partners in the US in Pennsylvania and elsewhere and with Local 100 in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas has advocated to Comcast, Cox, Time Warner and others that low cost $10 per month plans would work if there were serious and aggressive outreach. To date, Comcast particularly has viewed real outreach into lower income neighborhoods as superfluous to their real interest in creating little more than a public relations and marketing campaign. Google to its credit seems to have taken some half-steps to try and get the job done, and reportedly went door-to-door with its employees in some of Kansas City neighborhoods and, according to the Journal “teamed up with community groups to spread the word,” as well as supporting some “nonprofit groups that offer classes on using the Internet and sell cheap refurbished computer.”

The Journal’s work was specific to Kansas City, so we don’t know what the penetration of Comcast’s service is in Little Rock or Houston on our lower income neighborhoods, except through our own doorknocking and the aggregate numbers which we have forced Comcast to report. As miserable as the 10% Google figure is, it overwhelms the miniscule participation in Comcast’s FCC-ordered $10 per month plan, which certainly bests $25 a month, and Comcast claims, though seldom delivered, a cheaply available, refurbished computer.

The surveys found that 21% of the folks that declined service in lower income, largely minority neighborhoods in Kansas City cited cost as the key factor. Others cited access to cheaper access through smartphones, which though less useful in handling applications still, is also where use is soaring in Africa and India.

By all accounts, Comcast was still going to make money at $10 per month, and Google was definitely not going to lose money even with its so-called “free” service on the slower, lower end in Kansas City. Nonetheless, it is unavoidable, and the FCC needs to take careful note of this, to conclude that if we want to lower the digital divide we are going to have to recognize that it is a class divide over affordability, and until we regulate some of the gross profit margins out of internet access and treat it as the vital public utility it is, this situation will only get worse and be more harmful to lower and moderate income families as costs continue to rise.

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