Activists, Comcast tangle over accessiblity of low-income program

Saying Comcast isn’t fully delivering on an FCC mandate to connect low-income schoolchildren with the World Wide Web, an activist group protested in front of the company’s headquarters in Center City Philadelphia Wednesday.

When the FCC approved Comcast’s acquisition of NBC/Universal, it made it contingent on the company offering low-cost Internet access. The FCC went so far as to include the $9.95 a month plan in its official order allowing the deal to go ahead.  The agreement also required Comcast to subsidize the price of Internet-ready laptops. They titled the service “Internet Essentials.”

Wednesday’s protest was part of an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between Action United and Comcast. In December, Action United conducted an informal door-to-door survey of 100 low-income residents and found no one enrolled in the program.

With these figures, the activist group had planned to gather at Comcast headquarters to sing holiday carols in protest.

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Hearing of the group’s plans, Comcast representatives urged the group to cancel the protest, agreeing to have a sit-down meeting with Action United and the low-income parents they represent.

At that meeting, the group presented Comcast with a nine-point proposal — each point instructing the company on how to make the “Internet Essentials” program more accessible to eligible families. They also gave Comcast a two-week deadline to reply to their proposals.

When that deadline passed Tuesday, Action United decided to stage Wednesday’s protest -— a scene featuring picket signs, Occupy-style chants, and free baloney sandwiches. The sandwiches represent what they think of Comcast’s public relations department, organizers said.

Elizabeth Lassiter, an Action United canvas director and program-eligible mother, claims Comcast only wants to seem like they are doing something good.

“I don’t think they really are trying to get people on this program,” she said, “because they have so many barriers.”

“Like if you have a back bill, you don’t qualify. If you already have Internet services, you don’t qualify,” she said.

Comcast officials claim to be extremely proud of their work in the program. They feel their undertaking will prove monumental in the greater quest to close the digital divide.

They questioned, too, the veracity of the group’s informal survey, and wondered what expertise the group’s representatives had to make their judgments.

Wanting to evidence the seriousness of their commitment to the program, Comcast representatives pointed to the many schools, city organizations and nonprofits that have already benefited from “Internet Essentials.”

The Independence Charter Elementary School in Center City is one such program. Principal Jurate Krokys admitted that the program has some undue red tape. But, said, overall, it has been very positive for the school. She cited a number of schoolchildren who, thanks to the program, now have Internet access.

Understanding the point on each side, Krokys observed, “Anytime you’re doing something for the first time, you have to work out the kinks. So there are a few kinks in the system. However they are not insurmountable.”

Although Action United admits that the program has had some success, members say they won’t be satisfied until they see a drastic uptick in enrollment. They further challenge Comcast to release a full report that clearly outlines the program’s statistics.

In order to be eligible for the program, families must have at least one child in a public school that is already a recipient of the free lunch program —- a service offered to children from families with incomes no higher than 130 percent of the federal poverty rate. For a family of four, this would be about $29,000 per year.

It’s estimated there are 150,000 such families in Philadelphia.

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