Comcast, Internet, Arrogance, and Free Speech

New Orleans    Another day, another dollar in Comcast land where it turns out in their view of the world, no promises need be kept, customers should pay and not be heard, government is only for them, not for the people, and if they say it’s good, then, damn, it must be good:  Comcast-in-wonderland!

In Shreveport as Local 100 United Labor Union members pushed Comcast for action and access to the Internet for our Head Start parents, TV cameras were rolling and they were “not happy” as one of our members reported.

In Philadelphia where they had promised that there would be a detailed response to demands that our partner, ACTION United had brought forward in behalf of our coalition two weeks previously, yesterday came and went with no response from the company.   Houston Local 100 members got the same response from two Comcast governmental relations guys in their meeting on Friday.  Little Rock is waiting for its meeting soon.  We are on a “need to know” basis!

In Philly and Pittsburgh, members of ACTION United are taking the Comcast issue forward with a “baloney” sandwich picnic in their honor today.

City staffers in Pittsburgh sympathetic to our demands that Comcast lower the digital divide forwarded us an email from the local Comcast executive which is priceless in its arrogance and, frankly, lack of good sense about the basics involved in a democracy including the freedom of speech for folks like us who want to really see their Internet program work.  Somehow, Pittsburgh Comcast’s “Frank” seems to believe that if Comcast says “internet essentials” is a “great program,” then that ought to be enough said without worrying about the fact that no one is getting the Internet and virtually no one knows about the program.  Ol’ Frank wants to pretend that’s all on the shoulders of the Pittsburgh School System, because they haven’t “reported any complaints.”

Frank, ol’ buddy, first it’s not the job of the public schools to shill your so-called “internet essentials” program for you, and, secondly, if virtually no one has heard of your so-called “great” program, how would they complain?  And, who would they complain to?  Well, Frank, they would do exactly what they are doing and complain to people and organizations just like us who are committed to making sure that Comcast delivers on their program to provide low cost internet access.  And, despite your request to the Pittsburgh City Council members that they simply “not listen” to us as you indicated in your email, we’ve got news for you, they actually believe that it’s important to listen and respond to citizens (you might call them customers if you cared to actually really provide lower income families with internet!).

Don’t take my word for it.  Listen to Frank’s own words drawn from his email:

I have communicated with the Pgh Public Schools yesterday and they told me they have not received any complaints about the program.  We [Comcast?] ask that you do not [Frank’s bold!] engage with this group [ACTION United] and if any questions need to be answered please follow up with me.  Internet Essentials is a great program and benefits all families whose children are on the Free lunch program whether they are a Comcast customer or not.

The whole email is a classic, and, personally, I would simply love [my emphasis!] to know how Frank believes that this program currently benefits “all families…whether they are a Comcast customer or not.”

But, answers to those questions are unlikely to be available today in Pittsburgh even to members of ACTION United; since Frank also made it clear he was not going to actually show up at the City Council meeting.  Oh, no, not Frank, he’s a cable guy with Comcast.  He signed off saying, he’ll “watch on TV.”

Hello, Comcast!  Let us introduce you to America.  It’s a different country than you imagined it might be!  Live up to your word.  Provide real access to the internet for the poor, and agree to be accountable to your promises.  Hear our demands and “engage” with us directly!

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Is Cable Offer of Internet Access for Low Income Families Real?

New FCCOrleans The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced with great fanfare a program that would supposedly reduce the “digital divide” between poorer families and the rest of the highly connected rest of the country.  Sounds good, but reading the fine print on some of these deals, makes me pretty skeptical, or at least of a mind that we need to push the companies to do the most, rather than the least to make this happen.

First, in the grand tradition of the Obama Administration, this is a voluntary program from the cable internet providers, and of course even at $9.99 (with conditions of course!), everyone is very clear that it is so cheap for the cable companies to provide the service that they will still be making a significant profit even at those rates (WTF!?!).

Secondly, there are a lot of bells and whistles, most of them presumably based on the Comcast program that was rolled out in August in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

  • To qualify the family has to be eligible for the federal school lunch program.
  • To qualify the family has to still have at least one child in the school system throughout the qualifying period.
  • Since this is a corporate style voluntary program, the eligible families can’t have had cable internet access previously or an outstanding cable bill of any kind with the company (God knows that could be anybody!).

Thirdly, though it includes a lot of the major companies, importantly it does NOT include Verizon and AT&T, which are huge.  It does include Times Warner, Cox and Charter according to the New York Times.

Finally, there is a long rollup on this program – Spring 2012 – which means there is also an opportunity now to press harder for the program to be better!

And, so you get cable for $9.99, you still are not on the internet without a computer and the rest of the gear.  According to the announcements the plan for that is a “refurbished” computer for about $150.00, some Microsoft software being provided for free, and a security program, also provided for free.

Many questions remain.

  • How does the low income family swing this?
  • Supposedly there are deals with “microfinance” loans available, though no details there.    Who are they?
  • Who does the outreach?
  • Who is going to provide the “geek patrol” that will actually enable this to happen?
  • Who are the nonprofit partners and are they able to get this done or are they just going to leave flyers out on some community bulletin boards?  They claim non-profit partners.  The Comcast Philly rollout indicated the partners would be the school district and some others, though no one with recognizable grassroots strength in such communities (like Action United, the former Pennsylvania ACORN).

There were questions about access to jobs on content, but this program is clearly slanted towards education, not employment, so the answers feel flimsy.

The low hanging, immediate questions would include the following:

  • Why not a real “lifeline” internet program that is mandatory and available to all?
  • Why was the cost not set at breakeven?
  • Why are the cable companies not “carrying the loan” for the computers rather than these supposed microcredit operations?
  • Why is there no “maximum feasible participation” program to assure full access among eligible low income families?

Yes, this is a step forward.  Yes, this is better than nothing.

Importantly this is an opportunity for community based organizations with a low and moderate income base to push for much, much more and to press hard and aggressively for the steps necessary to really achieve “maximum feasible participation.”

The door is now open.  We should all crash through!

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