Is this Only PR for Comcast or About Internet for the Poor?

a community voice Community Organizing Organizing

New Orleans      The FCC made a big, big deal a few weeks ago about the fact that Cox Cable and Time-Warner Cable had both voluntarily agreed to provide low cost internet access to low income families.  The basics were $9.95 per month and a $150 refurbished computer.  The agreement they were trumpeting was based on a “model” program developed by Comcast was part of a quid pro quo for the FCC’s go ahead on the Comcast’s acquisition of NBC/Universal.

I’m delighted:  what a win!  A real bridge being built for crossing the digital divide with affordable internet access for the poor!   Let’s get all of our members, head start clients, free lunch eligible folks in our schools, and people in the community signed up and ready to go, first on Comcast, then on Cox, Times-Warner, and get the rest on board, too!

It turned out we had Local 100 members in Comcast service areas throughout Houston and Harris County, Little Rock, and Shreveport.  Even better we also represented workers in the Head Start programs in all three of those locations and throughout the schools in Houston.   Funny thing though, no one seemed to have heard of the program hardly.  It was virtually impossible to go through the maze of the system and get an application.  When our people asked for applications some were asked to pay for credit checks, which were not part of the program.  One of our members was asked to pay a deposit to be able to qualify.  If you didn’t call the right number, Comcast tried to “up sell” over the $9.95.  It would take two to four weeks to get an application, if one arrived at all.  If you were a tenant you had to prove that you were not someone who rented the apartment years ago and to do so, you had to go downtown to only one place, despite more than a dozen Comcast offices in the city in the case of Houston.  This was not a bridge over the digital divide; this was a false front on a new and higher wall blocking access to the poor.  Oh, and it turned out this really wasn’t about the poor or the unemployed or seniors or any of these groups, but only for families with school age or Head Start children who qualified for free school lunches.  Sigh.

Comcast is big in Philly.  An internet search on the program showed a lot of smiling faces and well known folks touting the importance of this Comcast initiative.  Calling friends and organizers in Philadelphia though produced the same head scratching response.  On first blush they had not heard of the program either.  Action United, a membership organization of low and moderate income families, had trouble finding any members or staff that knew much about this Comcast special on the internet.  They did a phone survey of 500 people and their worst fears were confirmed.  Few knew.  Even fewer had gotten on.   We found the same story in Little Rock.  One of our organizers knew about the program, because some of his children were solicited in their school, but not all of his children.

We reached out for Comcast.  No response in most places.  We reached out for the FCC, and most of the response was to forward the correspondence to Washington, D.C. and more recently to ask if they could forward our concerns to Comcast itself.

Action United, representing our entire coalition of organizations, including A Community Voice in Louisiana and Arkansas Community Organizations in Little Rock, met with the company.

  • How many were enrolled?   No answer.  Not sure they knew.
  • What are the goals for enrollment?  None and we don’t know yet was the answer.
  • What is the real outreach?  They printed more than a million flyers and mailers touting the program.  Where did they go?  How were they supervised?  What were the results?  Anything more active?  Pretty much a lot of shrugging and excuses and whatevers.
  • How about the problems around the country?  Hmmm.  No answers here either, though they seemed to say, it was all right to “up sell,” if someone called the “regular” Comcast numbers rather than the “special” “Internet Essentials” number.  Was this a “bait and switch?”

It was a dog-and-pony show rather than a really serious meeting about delivering internet access to lower income families.  They did promise to get back to us later in January, so perhaps they will begin to really commit to delivering access.

In Little Rock this week members of United Labor Unions Local 100 and Arkansas Community Organizations raised the issue with Comcast, but, weirdly, the head of Comcast tried to deny he had even received the certified letter.  Hardly matters, the problem remain the same.  He agreed to meet with us in Little Rock.  We’ll see if he follows through.

The FCC also called Houston, Philly, and Little Rock asking if they could forward our letters to them about problems with Comcast’s internet access program.  I’m not sure if this is a form of the FCC washing their hands of the problem or a signal to Comcast to live up to its promises, rather than its public relations?

Seems clear that thus far this program is mainly window dressing and feel-good-PR, so we seem to have little choice but to help families who are trying to get access to this program to file FCC complaints that so far it is nothing but deceptive advertising.  We have the Xeroxes burning in all of the cities that are part of this collaboration now so as we find more families denied or unable to apply or eligible and caught in the Comcast maze and bureaucracy, they can fill out an FCC complaint and move this up the chain.

Depending on the response, we will begin talking to local city officials about the questionable conduct of Comcast on this vital program.

Overnight we reached other potential partners in Knoxville, Tennessee and Springfield, Massachusetts where Comcast is also the cable company and internet provider.  Looks like we should start making a longer list of where Comcast operates to see if it is really following through anywhere.

We need to start talking to Cox and Time-Warner in other cities to make sure they understand what we have learned in the last several months.

Comcast has one heckuva advertising department, but when it comes to internet access to the poor, they may have run a game on the FCC, because this is NOT a model program.