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Consumerist Sounds Off on Internet Essentials and Comcast's Hidden Agenda

In a Consumerist article, Kate Cox takes a look at who is benefitting the most from Comcast's Internet Essentials program and - guess what - it is Comcast.

The program has brought Internet access to a number of people who may not otherwise have been able to get online and that's a good thing. According to Comcast, 300,000 families are receiving 5 Mbps download for the program's $9.99 monthly rate. All considered, that is 300,000 families who might otherwise not have Internet access at all.

But Cox noticed how the gigantic cable conglomerate pulls the program out to dazzle politicians whenever they need a little public opinion boost. In August 2013, Comcast announced it was extending the program:

Comcast, meanwhile, is not acting out of a sense of charity or philanthropy. They’re satisfying federal requirements to help bring broadband access to the poor. And Internet Essentials is only available where Comcast already operates — so Comcast isn’t spending a dime to run infrastructure to any place where it doesn’t already exist.

They sure get to benefit from looking philanthropic, though. Community outreach is a huge part of Comcast’s extensive lobbying efforts. And in looking to gain the blessing of federal regulators on their impending buyout of Time Warner Cable, “benefit to the community” is one of their best cards to play.

Cox notes the significant obstacles to signing on to the program, as we did in 2012. She also notes that families who need the program most are not always the ones who are able to find the information to enroll:

The other barrier is the enrollment process itself: Internet Essentials is separate from Comcast’s standard service. It uses a different website and phone number for enrollment and information. Consumers who call Comcast’s regular line and try to ask for the cheap internet generally get shunted into some kind of promotional triple-play package. Comcast representatives don’t redirect callers to the other phone number.

So the consumers most likely to be able correctly to sign up for Internet Essentials are high-information consumers who have the time and resources to use the internet to research how to get the best choice in internet access. And the target user of Internet Essentials is a lower-information consumer, potentially with education and/or language barriers, who doesn’t necessarily have the time and resources, or internet access, to do all the research over best choices.

Once a household no longer has a child who qualifies for free and reduced lunches, that household no longer qualifies for Internet Essentials.
Cox also comments on the service itself:

The other main problem with Internet Essentials is that it’s crap. A download speed of “up to 5 Mbps” is, by the standards of 2014, painfully slow. Those fancy online educational tools that are supposedly the main benefit of the program? Many of them don’t work so well on that connection.

In other words, Comcast is giving their low-income customers access to what they pay for — not access on par with what most other Comcast customers can buy. It’s both a fifth of the cost and a fifth of the service.

Last year, John Randall from the Roosevelt Institute came to a similar conclusion:

Comcast's Internet Essentials program does more to benefit Comcast's customer acquisition, public relations, and lobbying departments than to help people in America who need high-speed Internet access at a reasonable price. The reality is that the program is a cleverly designed customer acquisition program that benefits Comcast's bottom line. 

The Internet Essentials program, while offering a temporary respite to a small segment of low-income families, draws attention away from the real solution - policies that ensure affordable, reliable, and fast Internet access to all. As long as we continue to allow the consolidation of some of the most hated companies in the country, Internet Essentials is the best we can expect.

Benefits of Increased Broadband Utilization - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #93

While in Iowa for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities telecom conference, I had a chance to interview Michael Curri, the Founder and President of Strategic Networks Group - SNG. He and I have long had great discussions at events around the country and I attempted to recreate some of the key points in this interview.

Michael is dedicated to measuring and tracking how increased broadband utilization impacts communities and economies. He makes a compelling case for why communities should be concerned not just with robust Internet availability but also with ensuring local businesses know how to take full advantage of it.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 12 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Richmond Neighborhood Gets Free Wi-Fi in California

Residents in the Iron Triangle neighborhood of Richmond are now receiving free Wi-Fi as part of a new pilot program. The pilot, sponsored by Building Blocks for Kids (BBK), hopes to make Internet access widely available to the many local families who cannot afford it. New towers have been placed on local homes to extend access to approximately 400 houses.

BBK is a collaborative of 30 government agencies, nonprofit groups and community leaders. The pilot project is funded by a $500,000 grant from the California Emerging Technology Fund to address digital literacy in areas of Richmond where affordable Internet access is not readily available.

A recent Contra Cost Times article covered the story. According to the article, an Internet connection tower is mounted on local resident, Yolanda Lopez's roof:

The Internet tower installed on Lopez's house receives signals from Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization that has a 40-foot tower at 2512 Florida Ave. Lopez's transmitter sends free Internet signals for a radius of a few hundred yards, providing the web to dozens of neighbors, said Internet Archive engineer Ralf Muehlen.

The ongoing costs to provide the signal, now that the hardware is in place, is "negligible," Muehlen said.

By summer, BBK partners hope to outfit 20 houses in the Iron Triangle with signal towers, providing free high-speed Internet signals to more than 400 homes, said BBK Executive Director Jennifer Lyle. A second tower has already been installed at a home in Atchison Village, Lyle said.

The BBK press release notes that several public and private entities worked together to enhance the Wi-fi service:

Because of the technical skills of collaborative member ReliaTech and the IT infrastructure expertise of City of Richmond’s Department of Information Technology, low-income Richmond residents will have access to wi-fi at an impressive 12-16 megabits per second.

The neighborhood of just under 20,000 has had problems with high rates of crime for many years. A 2013 survey reflects that residents of the neighborhood are not embracing connectivity because it is too expensive for them. The results of the survey are part of a larger study from BBK examining home Internet access and usage in the Iron Triangle neighborhood. The study indicates that one-third of local residents do not have access at home and 40% do not own a working computer.

The grant has also allowed BBK to distribute 1,000 free refurbished computers and provide training to over 900 families.

Lopez told the Times:

"All my neighbors are coming up and thanking me for the free Internet," Lopez said in Spanish. "A lot of people can't pay $50 per month."

Baltimore Mayor: You Can't Grow Jobs with Slow Internet

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sees expanding Internet access as a justice issue and wants to make sure every Baltimore resident benefits from City assets, including fiber optic cables. To that end, the City is examining how it can use its conduit and fiber to improve Internet access.

We have previously covered Baltimore and its consideration of public investments to expand Internet access after both FiOS and Google decided not to invest there.

In the interview below, Mayor Rawlings-Blake expands on why this is important, saying "You can't grow jobs with slow Internet... people don't want to invest in communities where they feel like they are running through sludge, trying to catch up with other businesses," going on to say, "People want to be on the cutting edge."

Policy Brief: Building Community Broadband Access

In partnership with the Center for Popular Democracy, we have created a new policy brief: Building Community Broadband Access. We offer examples of communities that have acted to improve access by using smart strategies that facilitate community owned networks.

This fact sheet provides information to legislators, advocates, or concerned citizens who want to educate others about the benefits of publicly owned networks. This is the latest in our growing collection of convenient, compact, and instructive fact sheets. 

The Center for Popular Democracy works with a long list of local, state, and national groups to exercise grass-roots democracy. 

Download the Policy Brief [PDF].

Roosevelt Institute Examines Comcast's Internet Essentials

In 2011, Comcast commenced its Internet Essentials program with great fanfare from then FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. We looked at the program in detail and described Comcast's decision to withhold the program for two years to use as a carrot in a bid to secure the NBC merger. In addition to acquiring NBC, Comcast received great public relations press.

The Roosevelt Institute's Next New Deal Blog, recently ran an article by John Randall in which he examined the program in depth. He concludes that the program is an effective distraction from the real problem - lack of competition. In addition to placating policy makers to prevent meaningful changes, the program turns a hefty profit for Comcast and efficiently mines for new customers.

The program, touted as a way to reduce the digital divide, established onerous criteria to qualify for the $9.95 monthly service. Children in the household must qualify for the National School Lunch Program, there cannot be any unfinished business between the household and Comcast, participants must be new customers, and households must be located in an area served by Comcast.

I have had my own experience with the Internet Essentials program. My small family qualified and we now receive up to 3/1 Mbps from Comcast; prior to the program, we paid twice as much for 1 Mbps Wi-Fi. Randall is correct when he describes the program as a "customer acquisition program." A common expression goes "The slowest speed you will accept is the fastest speed you've experienced." So true. As more of my kids' homework depends on a usable Internet connection, we will need to sacrifice somewhere else to keep our 3 Mbps and we will do it. Our choices are limited because competition is scarce, even though we live in a major metropolitan area. Comcast, you have us. Nicely played!

If Comcast really wanted to help close the digital divide, it would make Internet Essentials a permanent program and ease the restrictions. I qualify because my kids qualify but there are millions of other people, including single adults and seniors, who do not and they need the Internet just as much as I do.

As Randall points out, Comcast is still turning a profit - $18 million per year on Internet Essentials' 150,000 subscriptions. While it may not be quite as profitable as roping those 150,000 into a higher rate when the program ends, more subscriptions and good faith business practices could pay off in the long term. Realistically, the Gonzalez Family knows Comcast will make no such changes. With no competition to fear, why should it?

Randall summarizes:

Comcast's Internet Essentials program does more to benefit Comcast's customer acquisition, public relations, and lobbying departments than to help people in America who need high-speed Internet access at a reasonable price. The reality is that the program is a cleverly designed customer acquisition program that benefits Comcast's bottom line. The program is ineffective: the connections are not “high-speed,” the program assists very few people, and the the program does nothing for those who can’t get a connection at all where they live. More importantly, the program does nothing to address the fundamental reason for the lack of ubiquitous, affordable high-speed Internet access in this country – the lack of competition. It earns Comcast good press while distracting regulators and public officials into thinking that changes in policy aren't needed and that digital divide problems will somehow work themselves out on their own as a result of corporate generosity. In the long run, Comcast Internet Essentials will do no more than contribute to the delay of much-needed regulation.

Lack of competition is important, but more choices may not solve much if they are also owned by companies from outside the community that are not accountable to it. Access to the Internet is not an ordinary market because all other markets depend on telecommunications services in the modern economy. Even if there are not many choices, having at least one choice that is rooted in the community and putting community needs first is the best solution.

Governments Should Focus on Infrastructure Despite False Statistics Peddled by NY Times and Others

Having just read the New York Times story "Most of U.S. is Wired, but Millions Aren't Plugged In," I was reminded that even the top mainstream telecom journalists really have little understanding of what they write. This is a bit ranty but comes back together constructively at the end.

I just read that "nearly 98 percent of American homes now have access to some form of high-speed broadband." Really? Just what exactly does that mean? It is definitely not the current FCC minimum standard speed required to engage in basic Internet activities: 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. Not even close.

To get 98%, I can only assume that the author has started with flawed stats from the FCC that are comprised on systematically overstated DSL availability in rural areas by carriers like Windstream, Frontier, CenturyLink, and others. He likely then included satellite Internet access availability, which is explicitly not broadband due to the inevitable lag of a 50,000 mile roundtrip to geosynchronous orbiting satellites.

But we don't know. We just know that Edward Wyatt knows that by some definition, nearly everyone in America has "high speed" broadband. This is news to the vast majority of rural communities I hear from, who see maps paid for by their tax dollars claiming they can get broadband in their homes. But when they call the company to get it, they find it is not actually available, even though that company had just told the government that it is available there.

These are the statistics that are now apparently official, without any need to even note where they come from. Note that this comes after the New York Times repeatedly erred in claiming few Europeans have access to high speed networks.

Wyatt goes on to laud the Obama Administration's stimulus effort to expand broadband networks:

The Obama administration allocated $7 billion to broadband expansion as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Most of it went to build physical networks. About half of those infrastructure programs have been completed, with Internet availability growing to 98 percent of homes from fewer than 90 percent.

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As far as federal programs go, this one worked pretty well at accomplishing its objectives. From what I could tell, a key objective was not overly upsetting existing carriers, which is why so much of the money was spent on middle mile connections that have recently been finished or are now being completed.

But very few households were directly served by the stimulus programs. NTIA chose to invest largely in middle mile networks that also connected community anchor institutions - rarely residents. If any last mile investment will result from the middle mile, it probably hasn't been built yet because the middle mile has just been completed or will be soon.

So while the stimulus was certainly better than doing nothing, it has had little impact on the growth from the invented 90% statistic to the invented 98% statistic.

The grand conceit of the article is what big cable and telephone companies have been telling us for years - we don't have an availability problem, the problem is that Americans just don't take advantage of these awesome connections we want to sell them! To paraphrase something I heard Yochai Benkler once say, Americans are not stupid, if you give them a crap product at a high price, they won't buy it.

The point of my frustration boils down to where we should focus our limited resources.

There is a real literacy component to the digital divide and that is a problem. However, solving that problem can be done with comparatively modest investments in programs to teach computer/technical/media literacy. This has been demonstrated by numerous foundations and others in civil society. Blandin Foundation in Minnesota does an excellent job of this. Existing Internet Service Providers can and should help fund these programs because it increases their customer base.

The danger of government focusing on the literacy divide rather than on actual availability, as some influential folks like Blair Levin have argued, is that solving the access divide - making fast, affordable, and reliable access truly available to 98% or more of US households - is a very challenging problem that civil society cannot solve and the private sector will not solve.

Some elected leaders LOVE to focus on the literacy divide because no one opposes those programs. That doesn't mean it is a good use of resources. Sometimes using resources effectively means challenging a few powerful firms that will vigorously oppose any change to an intolerable status quo because they are banking historically high profits by creating artificial scarcity.

Government exists so we can do together what we cannot do alone. Examples include electrifying the entire nation, building roads, and eventually an interstate highway system. Government should be focused on ensuring just about every American has access to fast, affordable, and reliable networks. Not by bragging about deeply flawed statistics provided by self-interested corporations but by making the necessary investments at the local level.

This is my final point - different levels of government have different strengths. We don't want to see a federal network. These networks should be responsive to communities, which means owned and operated locally. But the federal level needs to do its part in demanding accurate data that reflects the true nature of access to the Internet in America - not settling for whatever politically-connected firms want to offer.

Susan Crawford and Bill Moyers Discuss Internet Access in America

Susan Crawford sat down with Bill Moyers to talk about Internet access in America. The two touch on net neutrality, the digital divide, and how access is now a critical component to our economic development.

In the words of Bill Moyers, "This is pretty strong stuff." Bill and Susan also talk about how we have come to this point through lack of competition advanced by telecommunications companies' lobbying and legislative ennui.

They spend some time looking at Lafayette, Louisiana, one of the cities that we covered in our 2012 case study, Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks.  The two also dig into ways policy change can improve access and efforts we can all make to heighten awareness of the issue. This is a great dicussion for any one, regardless of their place on the Internet access learning curve.

Video: 

UC2B in Urbana-Champaign Tackles Digital Divide With Network Revenue

The UC2B project broke ground in the fall of 2011 and is a joint effort by the cities of Urbana and Champaign and the University of Illinois. The project is funded with a $22.5 million federal stimulus grant, a $3 million grant from the state of Illinois, and a list of other grants from local agencies.

From the beginning, the project policy board resolved to set aside funding from the network to address the local digital divide. According to a Janelle O'Dea article in the Daily Illini, 2-5 percent of the annual revenue from the network will go into this fund. The policy board is now fielding ideas from the public. There will be a series of community meetings and the first brought several ideas. From the article:

Meeting attendees presented several ideas for how to spend the fund. Some suggested purchasing new computers for resident use and training residents to use computers.

Artice James, president of the Champaign chapter of the National Council of African-American Men, suggested using the funds to provide job training for the installation of fiber optic material to area homes. James said he hoped many of these jobs will employ minority residents.

Alkalimat also commented on the issue of creating permanent jobs for Champaign-Urbana residents. He said he could see potential for creating a group similar to Best Buy’s Geek Squad.

UC2B's approach brings more people to the network in a self-nourishing fashion. The local community knows where the digital divide is in their area. Funding and decisions come from the people who will live with the benefits of the network. UC2B is another example of how local communities can build networks to effectively address the digital divide.

Scarlett McGrady Explains Virginia's Wired Road

The Wired Road is an ambitious fiber optic and wireless project offering Internet access to several underserved areas in rural Virginia. For the 31st episode of our Community Broadband Bits Bits podcast, Scarlett McGrady joins me to discuss its history and impact on the region.

McGrady is the Director of the Grant Community Computing Center [link to Facebook page], which providers a variety of services including computer literacy courses.

The Wired Road has long had gigabit capacity for those who are within range of the fiber optic connections. Anyone who can take a service from the network has to choose a service provider as the network is a pure open access approach: the community-owned network does not offer any services directly to subscribers. Instead, the Wired Road builds the infrastructure to enable independent service providers to offer services.

We discuss the Wired Road and the many ways that rural residents enjoy using the Internet to improve themselves and their businesses. You can find our previous stories about the Wired Road here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can download this Mp3 file directly here.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.