CETF and Partners Call on Comcast to Join Effective Public-Private Partnership to Get All Californians High-Speed Internet at Home

CPUC Proposed Decision would expand who qualifies for Comcast affordable Internet service, hold Comcast publicly accountable for new subscription goals

San Francisco, CA and Los Angeles, CA – March 12, 2015 – Comcast, whose merger with Time Warner Cable is currently under review by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), this week released new numbers citing growth in subscriptions for its affordable $9.95 a month Internet Essentials home service offered to low-income families with school children.

The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) and its partners have first-hand experience with Comcast Internet Essentials program.  For nearly four years, we have been actively engaged helping guide low-income families through the cumbersome and time-intensive sign-up process for the program, which has been rife with well-documented problems that Comcast has been slow to fix.  At the current subscription rate cited by Comcast, it would take the company another 9 years to reach all of the California families that are currently eligible for Internet Essentials in its pre-merger territory.  If the merger is approved, 87% of all school children on free-or-reduced lunch in California (more than 1 million students in Los Angeles County alone) will reside in Comcast territory.

Comcast announced March 10 that Internet Essentials has reached 20% of eligible families in California. CETF research based on California Department of Education data shows that 496,521 California households with students on free-or-reduced lunch are currently eligible for Comcast Internet Essentials in its current territory.  Based on Comcast’s announcement that it has signed up 61,596 California households in nearly four years, that leaves 434,925 eligible households, meaning the company has reached 12.5% of currently-eligible families. 

CETF has helped fund community organizations, including 2-1-1 California, Latino Community Foundation, Chicana Latina Foundation, Office of Community and Economic Development CSU Fresno, YMCA Long Beach, and Eden Housing among others, that work in the trenches with the most disadvantaged populations to help them understand the value of the technology, learn how to use it, and sign up for Internet service.  These trusted messengers also provide critical opportunities for these families to access very low-cost or free computers and Digital Literacy training, which is required for sustainable adoptions.  Comcast makes much smaller donations or pays membership fees to organizations that largely do not work in the field of Internet adoption.  Underscoring the commitment and patience required to sign up a household, experienced community organizations report that it takes 6 to 7 interactions to help a family address all the questions and concerns to overcome the barriers to subscribing to high-speed Internet service. 

Much of the adoption work provided by community based-organizations is supported by CETF grants, and these partners also bring match funding from other entities with a related purpose, including federal government grants.  United Ways of California, for example, has integrated its broadband adoption work with its information referral service, a strategy that was developed by United Ways of California and CETF to gain federal funding in the wake of a successful CETF pilot project with LA 2-1-1.

The undercounting of eligible families and claimed penetration rate by Comcast underscores why the company should meet the requirements in the Proposed Decision issued last month by the CPUC Administrative Law Judge, if the CPUC is to approve its merger with Time Warner Cable and trade service territories with Charter Communications.  Specifically, the judge has proposed conditions for merger approval that would require Comcast to reach 45% of all eligible low-income households in its newly combined California service territory.  The conditions also require Comcast to spend $275 per household on outreach, Digital Literacy training, and assisting eligible households to enroll for the Internet Essentials program.

Comcast has told the CPUC that these requirements are “unrealistic” but the experience of CETF and its partners show it is achievable with a sincere public-private partnership. CETF has submitted legal documents to the CPUC stating that the performance goal of 45% is doable if:  (a) Comcast resolves the problems with the Internet Essentials sign-up process and advertises effectively to reach the target populations; (b) Comcast participates as a sincere partner with advertising and a well trained call center; and (c) Comcast contributes $275 per household to an independently-managed statewide fund for affordable adoption programs.  

“The Proposed Decision is a significant and tangible public benefit for Californians. Fortunately, the CPUC has an established tradition of forging sound public policy to close the Digital Divide and we urge the CPUC to seize the opportunity by the proposed corporate consolidation to refine and adopt the requirements in the Proposed Decision when they are scheduled to vote on the merger on March 26,” CETF President and CEO Sunne Wright McPeak said.

She added, “CETF and our partners call on Comcast to join an effective public-private partnership to close the Digital Divide in California, and we stand ready to work with Comcast and all interested community-based organizations.  There is no substitute for the innovation and efficiency of the private sector when engaged as sincere partners motivated to achieve explicit goals.  Effective public-private partnerships can significantly leverage public benefit resources for a higher return on investment to taxpayers and ratepayers.”

For more information, please visit www.InternetForAllNow.org

For a list of the more than 120 organizations supporting recommendations for closing the Digital Divide, please visit bit.ly/1EAL2Xj