Silent Victory over Comcast at FCC on Blocking Low-Income Access to Internet

Financial Justice

New Orleans    Local 100, United Labor Unions, turned in scores of complaints from our members in Houston and Little Rock as did Action United in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh over the obstacles Comcast put in the way of lower income families attempting to gain access to the internet and inexpensive computers.  We endured meeting after meeting with high and low level Comcast executives and their dissembling about their highly political, but half-stepping and half-hearted bad faith effort to comply with the terms of the FCC approval of their acquisition of NBC/Universal, which required them to provide the reduced service to eligible families.  We enlisted Congressional help in Texas and elsewhere to try and get the FCC to act to enforce the order, but were continually met with silence.   It was clear to us that this was about marketing, public relations, and money, and categorically not about opening up great internet access to lower income families.

Or at least so it seemed, but it turned out we had won a victory from the FCC without them being willing to dignify us with a direct response, and of course Comcast was anything but open about being sent behind the woodshed for trying to fleece the poor, rather than lower barriers for these families.   Finally, we stumbled on a brief, buried item in the financial press, so here’s a big shout out to Brad Reed for his June 29, 2012 piece  for reading the fine print on FCC press releases:

FCC smacks Comcast for hiding standalone broadband option

Cable companies just love to sell bundled services for one important reason — it makes them buckets of money — but Comcast last year made an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission that it would actively promote an affordable standalone broadband option to customers as one condition of being allowed to purchase NBC Universal. Per GigaOm, it seems that Comcast didn’t live up to its end of the bargain because the FCC has slapped the company with an $800,000 fine for allegedly making it difficult for consumers to find its cheap standalone broadband plan. The FCC said in a statement that Comcast “was not adequately marketing its standalone broadband services.” In addition to paying its $800,000 fine, Comcast will agree to continue offering its cheap standalone broadband plan through at least February 21st, 2015, one year longer than in the original agreement.

So, yes, we won.  $800 grand is nothing to Comcast, but we will certainly rev up our efforts again to make them finally have to deliver and another year of their compliance review will cost them dearly in this program.

We found this press squib as we prepared for a meeting to assess this effort in January with our allies.  The real question before us now is how we can redouble our efforts to see if anything has changed, or whether or not we have to go back to the FCC again.  Will it now be possible to immediately call and get access to the program at any Comcast number or will it still be only if some low income family stumbles on the right number so they are not “bundled up” and up-selled?  Will there still only be one location out of the more than a dozen in Houston that allows an application?  Will Comcast still try to blame everything on schools as if they are somehow responsible for compliance on an FCC order?

We will be even more shocked to find a real change in Comcast than we were surprised at finally stumbling on to this victory.  The old saying about “arrogance comes before a fall” comes to mind here.  Comcast thinks it got over.  A lot of brochures and not so much as lifting a finger to really get access, and now the fog of silence will mean that no one knows about the program and the many low income families that were bait-and-switched last year won’t even know change is pretended.

We’ll double down now, but the FCC can’t just issue an extension and nearly a million dollar fine, and really believe that Comcast is going to do right, much less better.