Diversity & Inclusion
COVID-19 / Digital access / Education / Internet Essentials

Comcast protest for free internet access brings digital divide debate to the forefront

Outside the telecomms giant's Center City HQ, activists conveyed concerns about what virtual learning means to Philadelphians with limited or no internet access and questioned what side of the digital divide Comcast is on.

Protest for increased digital access at Comcast HQ on Aug. 3, 2020. (Photo courtesy Philly Student Union)
Full disclosure: Comcast is the title sponsor for Philly Tech Week, organized by Technically Media. That relationship is unrelated to this article.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly named a Comcast spokesperson. It has been updated. (8/3/20, 8:14 p.m.) Mention of the two Wi-Fi bands put out by modems leased to Xfinity customers has been removed for clarity. (8/3/20, 10:46 p.m.)

On a national day of action for safe schools amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, dozens of protestors outside Comcast’s Center City headquarters on Monday afternoon demanded better internet access for low-income Philadelphians and for the telecomms giant to divest funding from the Philadelphia Police Department.

Devren Washington, a senior policy organizer for Movement Alliance Project, one of the organizations that helped organize the protest, said he believes that Comcast has not provided enough support for communities in need of digital access — a problem exacerbated by COVID-19.

“With the pandemic and everything happening, the digital divide has been a bad issue in Philadelphia,” he told Technical.ly. “The pandemic has heightened that and it has really impacted students as they’ve tried to do online education. It’s turned into ‘the have and have nots.’ Students with internet are often more affluent and white and able to take advantage and continue education. For Black and brown and poor students, they’re looking at huge hurdles.”

After public objections to a previously proposed hybrid academic model for the School District of Philadelphia in fall 2020, the Board of Education voted last week to use a virtual learning model through November, or the end of the first academic marking period.

Protesters had four demands: that Comcast open its residential hotspots in addition to public hotspots that are already open; that Comcast increase speeds for its low-cost Internet Essentials services so that families with multiple students will have usable internet; that Internet Essentials services can be free for the duration of the pandemic and not just the first two months of service, as offered by Comcast back in March; and that Comcast divest funding from the police and reroute it to community projects.

Washington said he does not believe that the current Internet Essentials program is an adequate solution to the challenges facing families that cannot afford high-speed internet access.

A Comcast spokesperson told Technical.ly that Comcast is proud of the work Internet Essentials has done since it was first offered in 2011 to help bridge the digital divide. They said that Internet Essentials has connected 280,000 Philadelphians and that Comcast has donated millions of dollars to digital literacy.

“We offered a 60-day free service and said we’d do that through June and have extended that through year’s end,” they said of the Internet Essentials program during the pandemic. “We permanently increased speed the speed 15 mbps to 25 mbps and waived all debts. If it’s more than a year old we’ll waive it.”

The spokesperson said that the 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload rate of internet access meets the minimum FCC requirements for high-speed internet and that service at that rate can allow for “three high-quality Zoom calls.”

In May 2020, school district Superintendent Dr. William Hite reportedly asked internet service providers such as Comcast to provide students and their families with free internet access, and they declined.

(A policy initiative put forth by the Mayor’s Office and called the Digital Equity Coordinating Committee will also aim to connect community stakeholders to ensure Philadelphians who need access to internet and technology will be able to get it. Details of the committee’s plans are forthcoming.)

The Comcast spokesperson acknowledged the rise in demand for internet access, saying that Xfinity hotspots in public locations like parks and coffee shops have seen 11,000% increase in usage since the pandemic started — but that opening up residential hotspots to the public is more complicated than protesters may believe.

“[Our modems] are not designed to support an 11,000% increase in usage,” the spokesperson said. “We’re saying they are not engineered or capable of doing that. It would impact your [customer] experience.”

Meanwhile, at Monday’s protest, Councilmember Helen Gym did not mince words about the kind of support she expected from the corporation.

“We have one simple request. This is not hard,” she said. “When a generation of children’s education relies on the internet, Comcast, you have an obligation to support our children and not to extort our school districts for millions and millions of dollars.”

A state away, Baltimore Teachers Union and SOMOS made similar demands this afternoon for Baltimore students at a sister protest.

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Comcast / Media Mobilizing Project / Philadelphia Police Department / School District of Philadelphia
Series: Coronavirus

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