How Our Biggest ISPs Are Failing Students During COVID-19
Above photo: Baltimore Teachers Union, Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, teachers and students hold a car and bike caravan rally from Camden Yards to Comcast’s city headquarter on McHenry Row. Kenneth K. Lam.
Early in the pandemic, one of our MediaJustice Network members reached out to us in hopes we could support a group of high school students in Baltimore who were trying to amplify their campaign. The students are leaders in a Latinx and immigrant student organization called Students Organizing for a Multicultural and Open Society (SOMOS), and this was their first time organizing for digital equity.
When school ended last year, SOMOS realized that many of their fellow Baltimore city schoolmates who’d relied on Comcast’s Internet Essentials discount program didn’t have a connection fast or reliable enough for online school. Whenever they could get into virtual classes, they’d often get kicked off multiple times a day and sometimes multiple times during a single class. Households with multiple students or family members working from home had to schedule who could be online, when and for how long. Families were put in impossible situations, forced to negotiate whose education or work was more important, and who would have to sacrifice and fall behind.
Philadelphia MediaJustice Network member Movement Alliance Project (MAP) had been working with allies and students on a #ParkingLotWifi campaign highlighting stories that have become all too familiar in 2020: parents and students sitting in parking lots (like Taco Bell) just to get access to WiFi for online school. MAP’s campaign targeted Comcast, demanding the telecom giant open up their residential wifi hotspots to the public so students and community members could access the Internet during the pandemic from the safety of their homes. The SOMOS students adopted this demand and added two of their own addressing Comcast’s Internet Essentials plan:
Expand the two free months of Internet Essentials to make the program free for the duration of the pandemic and 60 days beyond the full resumption of in person schooling.
Increase the speeds of Internet Essentials from 25/3 Mbs to 100/20 Mbs so students can actually participate in school.
Soon, another MediaJustice Network member joined Baltimore and Philadelphia in their campaign against Comcast. The Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP), a Black women-led organization of community technologists, was also facing a new school year with the majority of Black, Latinx and immigrant students stuck on the wrong side of a growing digital chasm, with Comcast to blame. Even worse, the Detroit group revealed that Comcast was funding a plan to build out a video surveillance network of broken and racist facial recognition technology to be placed in Detroit’s majority Black and immigrant communities.
Each of these local campaigns were facing the same villain. Corporate leviathan Comcast was holding mafia-like control over each of the cities’ internet infrastructures and markets. We joined our respective campaigns into one common purpose and brought in other national groups like Free Press and Color of Change, because we knew that Comcast’s internet hold over cities wasn’t limited to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit. We also knew that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and cable companies like Comcast strengthen their hold through their wealth, grotesque size and political influence. This means they aren’t very worried about what communities think about them. And, they’re most likely the only player in town (if they serve your neighborhood). So to challenge a corporation like Comcast, we would need to get national attention and tell a story not about three cities, but about a pattern of harms committed by Comcast and other monopoly-ish, mafioso-like ISPs specifically impacting Black, Latinx and immigrant students and their families.
Our collective goals evolved as we grew as a group, connected with more communities and added more voices to our collective story. Local campaigns continued local actions that were now amplified by national digital campaigns. We worked together on creating op-eds and connecting to national press. We began organizing a national press conference bringing together all of the stories and voices from around the country demanding that Comcast just be decent and serve the communities to which they’d positioned themselves as the sole savior in a crisis like COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Comcast was scheming and strategizing a new national plan of their own. Apparently it wasn’t enough for the multi-billion dollar corporation to offer failed service to the Black, Latinx and immigrant communities where they’ve monopolized Internet access during a time of natural and manmade disaster. It wasn’t enough that Comcast’s Internet business was breaking quarterly records during an economic crisis with millions losing their jobs. Comcast saw an opportunity to build what they are calling ‘partnerships’ out of the disastrous digital divides that they are uniquely responsible for.
Comcast realized with the new school year looming, it could approach already under resourced, majority Black and Brown school districts to make the schools and cities an offer they couldn’t refuse. These partnerships are in essence Internet Essentials at scale, with school districts on the hook for single payer agreements.. Now, Comcast pressures school districts already under financial distress into signing long term contracts for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In some cities, millions of dollars.
At this point in the story, even the mafia comparison isn’t cartoonishly villainous enough. This new partnership program is less like a mafia protection racket and more like a bully literally demanding lunch money from students…and their entire school system.
By the time we held our national press conference, our numbers had grown along with our collective story. We had students and teachers from Baltimore and Philadelphia telling the world how frustrating online school has become thanks to Comcast and Internet Essentials. City council members and a school board treasurer spoke out about the impossible situation they had been put in. School and city finances have been decimated by COVID-19, yet Comcast was still holding students’ internet access, slow and insufficient as it may be, hostage.
We’ve also expanded our targets beyond Comcast. One educator and advocate from Louisiana joined the press conference to demand their ISPs do a better job connecting communities in South Louisiana and to stop blocking people in need from accessing emergency discount plans. Others demanded the FCC make E-Rate funds available for offsite learning and increase high speed broadband’s minimum speed. Policy experts unpacked how Congress and the FCC have historically failed Black, Latinx, tribal and rural connectivity, and how ISPs engineered the mafia/monopoly driven digital divide with FCC and Congressional help. A nation-wide question was emerging: why (and how) is it that we’re in a position during a national crisis where the only possible solution is that individual cities, school districts and students groups must negotiate with one of the largest corporations in our country in order to get online?
Comcast continues to see the pandemic as an opportunity to practice disaster capitalism. Despite multiple meetings with SOMOS students and allies, including a Baltimore city council subcommittee hearing, they still refuse all of our groups’ demands. It’s difficult to overstate how these failures by Comcast, other ISPs, Congress, state legislatures and the FCC are putting people’s lives in danger and failing a generation of primarily Black and Latinx students. We still believe that we can pressure Comcast to stop exploiting students and communities of color, but it’s going to take a lot. Although we know that getting students connected to online school would be a victory, it’s still only a partial victory. Our ultimate goal must be even broader.
Looking forward, we’re going to keep growing our collective, keep adding stories, keep bringing people into the fight with us to get there. We’re going to keep pushing back against the corporate propaganda that Comcast is trying to spread now, spending mad money in advertising blitzes talking about what a wonderful job they’re doing connecting students during the pandemic. Part of what victory looks like is you reading this right now. Another part of that victory could look like you taking action, right now. You can sign our petitions, you can add your community’s stories and you can find out how to get involved by visiting our new website, InternetIsEssential.org. We’ve lost most of a semester already waiting for bad actors to do the right thing, but our fight isn’t finished. We’re only beginning and we are unstoppable.
Brandon Forester is a national organizer at MediaJustice and is fighting for a just and liberated world where everyone has the opportunity to seek out safe community and live out the full expression of their inherent dignity. He’s also a member of the Global African Worker editorial collective.