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.


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.