Setting the Record Straight on Criticisms of the Comcast-TWC Transaction
And while it may be easy for critics to do this from the sidelines, we would rather try, in the spirit of President Kennedy, to light a candle than to curse the darkness. The reality is that Internet Essentials has been one of the most successful, if not the most successful, private sector initiatives to close the digital divide ever. And it’s not just Comcast that says this; scores of credible civic and community leaders have said the same.
We understand the importance of closing the digital divide and we take critics at their word that they simply want Internet Essentials to be more robust. It is wrong for some to dismiss the value of all that has been accomplished in these few short years – the hundreds of thousands of families whose lives have been changed by the program – as we engage in this debate about what more there is to do.
But to those critics and business interests that want to take shots at the program, we say join us in the fight against the digital divide to make broadband a reality for all Americans, working together to do more, rather than sniping at cross purposes to run down what has been done.
So we’re happy to take this opportunity to set the record straight because the facts speak for themselves.
We recently announced that from August 2011 through February 2015 Internet Essentials has connected more than 450,000 households – or over 1.8 million low-income Americans, to the transformative power of the Internet. To put that in perspective, 1.8 million is larger than the populations of 96 of the 100 biggest cities in the United States. The result also eclipses similar broadband adoption efforts, which collectively have not been able to reach even a quarter of that number of households. What’s more, the six-month period from September 2014 through February 2015 was the most successful period in the program’s history, with nearly 90,000 new Internet Essentials enrollments.
Claims regarding a "low" adoption rate for the program are unfounded. Internet Essentials has been unparalleled in its success. Nationally, after less than four years of effort, Internet Essentials has now reached 17 percent of its estimated eligible population, with a number of cities and states over 20 percent. What’s remarkable is that even though Comcast is only one of multiple providers and does not have broadband systems in two-thirds of the country, the program has accounted for approximately one-quarter of all of the national broadband adoption growth for low-income families with children from the program’s inception through June 2014. This is according to Dr. John B. Horrigan, America’s preeminent researcher on broadband adoption and utilization and former head of research for the FCC’s National Broadband Plan. To put the program’s achievement in proper perspective, after almost twenty years of offering and intensely marketing all tiers of its Internet access service, Comcast has achieved approximately 40 percent penetration of the service across its footprint. The unconnected population is difficult to reach, and closing the digital divide is a long-term project.
Claims that the sign-up process is long and cumbersome are untrue. From the start, Comcast has sought to simplify the application intake process and, as we have gained experience, we have repeatedly implemented significant enhancements to further improve the process so applicants are approved and connected quickly and efficiently. For example, students at tens of thousands of schools are now eligible for instant approval, eliminating any need to provide supporting documentation with their application. In fact, this enhancement alone is currently benefiting a majority of applicants. Comcast also goes to great lengths to ensure eligible customers can easily enroll in the program by working with local partners to facilitate the process, distributing program materials in 14 different languages, and staffing a call center that is dedicated to the program and promoted through English and Spanish toll-free numbers. We are committed to continuous improvement are always reviewing and improving the functionality of the online application to ensure it provides the best user experience.
Claims that eligibility requirements are too restrictive ignore the program’s intent to bring the Internet to low-income children and their families. Comcast’s main goal for now is to serve Internet Essentials’ target population better and more broadly. To that end, we have expanded the original eligibility criteria for Internet Essentials twice, first by extending it to families with children eligible to receive reduced price school lunches, and then by offering it to parochial, private, cyberschool, and homeschooled students. As a result, nearly 2.6 million families are now eligible for Internet Essentials, an increase of approximately 30 percent from the originally estimated eligible base. Last year we also created an amnesty program for families with debt older than one year for the purpose of connecting to Internet Essentials.
In addition, the program has gone far beyond Comcast’s voluntary commitment to the Commission. Based on input from our partners and our own learnings, we have made more than 20 key enhancements to the program over the past three and a half years, including extending the program indefinitely―beyond Comcast’s now-expired three-year commitment; increasing speeds (twice); expanding eligibility; providing amnesty to families who have a past due balance older than one year; and streamlining enrollment by, among other things, creating an instant approval process for many families.
Critics completely misunderstand the complex factors that drive non-adoption. Researchers from the FCC, the NTIA, the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and others have identified a bucket of digital literacy issues, including a perceived lack of relevance of the Internet, a lack of understanding as to the value or usefulness of the Internet, fear of the Internet, and lack of basic digital literacy skills, as the main barrier to broadband adoption in low-income communities. To tackle these issues head on, we have invested more than $225 million in cash and in-kind support to help fund digital literacy and readiness training and education, reaching more than 3.1 million people through our national and local non-profit community partners. This gets to the crux of our success, which is that the program is designed as a wrap-around solution that marries low-cost broadband access with training and education. It is also why the program is structured as a partnership between Comcast and thousands of school districts, libraries, elected officials, and nonprofit community partners.
We are extremely proud of Internet Essentials and are confident that we will be able to do even more to help close the digital divide and encourage broadband adoption by expanding it to New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Charlotte, and other communities in the TWC markets.
Don’t just take our word for it either. Consider what others have said about the Internet Essentials program:
Hilary Shelton, Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Director of the Washington Bureau, NAACP
"[Internet Essentials is] the largest experiment ever attempted to close the digital divide. … The program is unique because it not only addresses the major barrier to adoption – demonstrating relevance of the broadband Internet and teaching the skills to use it – but because of the additional incentives it offers such as discounted broadband service and hardware. The program virtually eliminates the barriers most often cited for not having the broadband Internet at home. … The combination of hands-on training and inexpensive broadband service and equipment has made this one of the most successful digital divide initiatives ever tried." Detroit News, 4/6/2014
Brent Wilkes, National Executive Director, League of United Latin American Citizens
"Most non-adopters say they have no need for Internet service or simply don’t own a computer. … Comcast then teams with scores of leadership organizations in these communities, like ours, to help build an echo chamber of culturally relevant support. At the League of United Latin American Citizens Tech Centers, this has resulted in more than 1.6 million Americans learning how to build a resume, apply for student financial aid, register voters and sign up for health care."
"We know from our partnership with Internet Essentials, that its focus on low-income youth is, and should be, its main priority. We believe the key to getting adults in poverty to adopt is to demonstrate how broadband will help their children succeed in school." Orange County Register, 3/19/2015.
Jim Clark, President & CEO, Boys & Girls Club of America
"The impact of [Internet Essentials] is very real to members of the many local Boys & Girls Clubs providing digital access on site and partnering with Comcast to offer Internet Essentials to families at home. Children like 10-year-old Maya have learned critical safety lessons, such as ‘not to give out any personal information over the Internet, especially Facebook.’ Fellow 10-year-old Lisset observed that her social media posts today ‘could affect whether or not [I] get a job in the future.’ Along with lessons in other topics like cyberbullying, these are lifelong lessons that keep our children safe as they move further into the digital world."
"For those of us working to level the playing field for disadvantaged youth, overcoming digital inequality is one of the great challenges of the 21st Century. Meeting that challenge requires constant opportunities to safely connect – in the classroom, after school, and in the home – so that one day every parent can have the luxury of worrying about whether their child has had too much screen time." Orange County Register, 4/3/2014
John Horrigan, former Head of Research, FCC’s National Broadband Plan
"Comcast IE’s program has accounted for about 25% of new broadband connections among low-income families with children since the program’s inception. Approximately one-quarter of the overall broadband adoption growth rate for low-income families with children since 2009 can be credited to IE." Letter to the FCC, 9/18/2014
"Those who receive formal training from an IE program, library, or other institution (as opposed to informal assistance from family or friends) were significantly more likely to use the Internet to pursue economic opportunities and cultivate social ties. Those who received formal training were 15 percentage points more likely to use the Internet to look for a job, 14 percentage points more likely to use it to access government services, and 12 percentage points more likely to use it to connect with family and friends. Some 31% of IE families report taking advantage of training, highlighting the need to do more. There is an opportunity for all—community organizations, banks, schools, the government, tech companies and Internet service providers—to develop digital literacy programs or promote existing training programs, such as that provided by Comcast, to the broader population of non-broadband adopters." Deepening Ties: Comcast Internet Essentials Customers Show Broader and Deeper Ties to the Internet Over Time — Especially Among Those Who Had Digital Literacy Skills Training, 1/2015
David Valladolid, President & CEO, Parent Institute for Quality Education; Darryl Adams, board secretary of the California Association of African-American Superintendents and Administrators (CA)
"I can tell you from experience it’s hard to bring people across the digital divide. It takes a full-spectrum effort with compelling content, affordable hardware and training, and quality low-cost service. That’s what Internet Essentials brings to the table, and the fact that not all eligible families have enrolled seems a rather vapid criticism. If we want more of our kids online, we need more companies to create programs of their own rather than nitpicking the few companies showing leadership on the issue." Sacramento Bee, 9/28/2014
"What makes IE unique and effective is that it attacks the problem with multiple tools simultaneously – all of which are critical to making the online experience a way of life for low-income youth. Comcast's recent partnership with the California-based Khan Academy online learning center exemplifies the ‘more than just a wire’ philosophy of this highly effective program. And the results have been compelling. Nearly 1.8 million previously unconnected low-income Americans have now brought broadband into their homes because of IE, including over 61,000 families here in California. That's thousands of students studying at home rather than visiting a local McDonald's parking lot for free Wi-Fi or waiting for scarce library connections to become available. … As parents and educators, we see how IE has been the most effective program to date in helping students and their families connect online." Oakland Tribune, 3/14/2015
Javier Palomarez, President & CEO, U. S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Alice Perez, President & CEO, California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Dora Westerlund, CEO, Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation (CA)
"Latinos trail the general population in home broadband by as much as 10 percent. Comcast’s Internet Essentials has been the best answer yet to this cleave; in just three years it has changed the lives of 35,000 low-in come families – disproportionately Latino, African American and other minorities – in Northern California. That number could double, triple or more as new California families become eligible under this deal." San Jose Mercury News, 12/29/2014
We’re also proud of our record of compliance with the NBCUniversal conditions, and claims to the contrary are unfounded. We’ve addressed these factual inaccuracies before and these recycled allegations are simply not based on the facts. The record is clear. We’ve met and in many cases exceeded the more than 150 conditions placed on the NBCUniversal transaction by the FCC and we’ve complied with the DOJ Consent Decree fully. Once again, here is what critics have gotten wrong:
Project Concord: Project Concord launched as HitBliss using substantial amounts of content from NBCUniversal. The Media Bureau ruled in NBCUniversal’s favor – without any suggestion of non-compliance by NBCUniversal – on the core issue in this case, which had nothing to do with whether Project Concord had a right to content, but rather which content they could demand given third party contractual restrictions.
HBO Go on Playstation: The issue relating to authenticating HBO Go on Playstation 4 in no way implicates Comcast’s NBCUniversal conditions and is nothing more than a purely commercial issue wholly unrelated to the current transaction. We authenticate HBO Go on the HBO website, the iPhone and iPad, Android smartphones and tablets, Kindle Fire, Xbox 360, Apple TV, Samsung smart TV, and Roku devices. Besides this, we provide our customers with authenticated access to HBO and dozens of other programmers on multiple devices through our robust Xfinity TV Go app, which allows customers to get all their authenticated TV Everywhere programming in one safe, easy to use, and familiar app.
Soul of the South TV & Back9: Once again these are not transaction related issues. Soul of the South TV has distribution in five Comcast markets and while it may – as many programmers do – want broader distribution, there is no compelling customer demand for broader distribution of the channel and, in fact, no other MPVD carries them broadly. Furthermore, the notion that Comcast is responsible for Back9 suspending operations as a result of failed carriage talks with Time Warner Cable and its lack of success as a programming service generally is absurd. Rather than stifling independent programmers, Comcast is an industry leader in the carriage of independent programming. Since 2011, Comcast has launched 20 new independent networks and has expanded carriage of over 141 independent networks by more than 217 million customers.
Bloomberg: The Bloomberg matter involved a disagreement over the proper interpretation of the specifics of the NBCUniversal "neighborhooding" condition — not a compliance issue. The FCC was not asked to and did not find that Comcast had violated the underlying condition in any way. Once the FCC interpreted the condition, Comcast promptly followed the agency’s interpretation. Comcast remains Bloomberg TV’s largest distributor, and the parties have a strong and amicable business relationship; in fact, Bloomberg recently asked the FCC to excuse Comcast from the fully-satisfied neighborhooding requirements so that Comcast could fulfill Bloomberg’s specific channel placement priorities. And Michael Bloomberg, currently the CEO of Bloomberg L.P., is one of the many respected third parties who have come out in favor of this transaction.
Standalone Broadband: Of the more than 150 conditions placed on the NBCUniversal transaction there has only been one compliance concern to date regarding whether Comcast adequately marketed its standalone broadband product. It occurred in the first weeks after the deal, and was quickly resolved with a voluntary consent decree that was fully implemented and satisfied. Meanwhile, Comcast continues to offer every tier of its broadband service on a standalone basis, and this has become a substantial component of our broadband business.
OVD Services: Comcast treats all Internet traffic the same, whether it involves affiliated or unaffiliated programming and whether the traffic comes from an affiliated or unaffiliated website. Thus, in the very few markets where Comcast is conducting data usage trials, all Internet traffic – affiliated or not – counts towards any usage thresholds that apply. Claims to the contrary conveniently ignore the factual and legal distinction between Internet traffic and Comcast’s cable service by contending that cable service delivered in IP must be treated as if it is delivered over the Internet. The Commission itself, however, has recognized the distinction between cable delivered in IP and programming delivered over the Internet. And, as Comcast has explained previously, Comcast’s Title VI cable services – whether delivered in legacy QAM analog, QAM digital, or in IP – are entirely separate from Internet traffic, are not delivered over a customer’s Internet access service at all, and thus cannot and should not be subjected to usage plans that apply specifically to that customer’s use of Internet access service.