Comcast tries to compromise on Internet outreach

Dawn Hawkins has clashed with Comcast. "They opened a can of worms with me," she said.
Dawn Hawkins has clashed with Comcast. "They opened a can of worms with me," she said. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 18, 2014

On the wall next to her desk in the North Philadelphia nonprofit advocacy group Action United, Dawn Hawkins has posted the saying "Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor each morning, the devil says, 'Oh, crap, she's up.' "

It was Hawkins, a 42-year-old single mother from Strawberry Mansion, who was among the first to bring attention to the restrictions in Comcast Corp.'s discounted Internet Essentials program for low-income families with school-age children.

A 10-year-old back-due cable-TV bill for $180 made Hawkins ineligible for the $9.95-a-month Internet Essentials that Comcast publicized as an aid to closing the nation's digital divide - the term for the substantial number of poor people who can't afford $50-a-month Internet service.

Hawkins didn't think that was right, and Comcast wouldn't agree to a payment plan. She has a son, Khyrie, then a fifth grader at L.P. Hill Elementary School on Ridge Avenue.

"They opened a can of worms with me," said Hawkins, who helped organize a protest in 2012 at Comcast's Center City headquarters to present executives with bologna sandwiches that she thought represented its Internet Essentials program.

Comcast said then - and now - that past-due cable bills don't seem a major barrier to broader enrollment in Internet Essentials. But in response to concerns by its nonprofit partners, Comcast this month began offering "amnesty" for low-income parents with past-due cable bills. This way, those families won't be automatically rejected.

Comcast hasn't made the amnesty permanent, though executive vice president David Cohen - the Internet Essentials' champion at the company - said Friday that Comcast has no plans of ending it. As part of the liberalized terms to boost participation, Comcast also is offering free Internet Essentials for six months - a value of about $60 - to low-income families that enroll by Sept. 20.

'I hope I'm wrong'

Cohen said he didn't think the amnesty would lead to "thousands and thousands" of new enrollees in the program.

"I hope I'm wrong. We'll know in a year," he said, adding that the biggest problem to getting families to enroll with Internet Essentials is getting them to understand the importance and relevance of the Internet to modern life in America.

The program - which Comcast agreed to finance and run as part of its acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011 - remains a work in progress, with some believing the participation should be higher or the eligibility broadened. Comcast restricts it to low-income families with school-age children.

Nationwide, 350,000 low-income families have enrolled between the program's launch in August 2011 and June. Comcast declined last week to disclose the current enrollment, which would account for families that dropped out or failed to recertify in that time frame.

Comcast runs its cable systems in most of the nation's largest cities, and its Internet and TV wires pass about 50 million homes. As a "public benefit," Comcast has said it would extend the Internet Essentials program to Time Warner Cable Inc.'s cable-TV franchise if regulators approve its $45 billion acquisition of the nation's second-largest cable-TV company.

But New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer cautioned in testimony to the New York Public Service Commission in July that while Internet Essentials was a "laudatory" program, its "slow speed, limited eligibility, and inadequate outreach" restrained it from reaching millions of low-income Americans. The commission, a regulatory agency, is reviewing Comcast's proposed deal for Time Warner Cable.

Stringer cited statistics from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group that publishes investigative journalism, that estimated there were 7.2 million low-income families in Comcast's service areas but only 2.6 million eligible for Internet Essentials. The reason is largely the result of the provision that the families include school-age children to qualify.

The center also estimated that there were 4.6 million low-income families in Time Warner Cable's franchise areas, but only 1.7 million families would qualify, Stringer wrote.

Stringer filed his comments with the New York Public Service Commission. Time Warner Cable is a major cable-TV provider in Manhattan, Staten Island, and Upstate New York cities.

"It is critical that [the New York Public Service Commission] not only press Comcast to significantly expand the reach of Internet Essentials, but also that it engage in appropriate oversight to ensure that the company is meeting its commitments to low-income residents of the Empire State," Stringer wrote.

'No other'

Cohen said that Internet Essentials was a big and complicated program. "We constantly look at the eligibility criteria," he said. "We continue to consider possible expansions."

He noted that nonprofit partners have suggested expanding the program to veterans, low-income senior citizens, or the disabled.

"No other company in America has developed a program that has come close to the reach, scale, and success of this program," Cohen said.

As for Hawkins, her response to the amnesty for back-due bills was "whip-de-doo." She didn't think it would boost enrollment in Internet Essentials because people who were previously rejected for back-due bills aren't likely to reapply.



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