Cries of “phony baloney” echoed off the façade of the Comcast Center skyscraper this week as protestors shouted their accusations that Comcast’s Internet Essentials program hasn’t measured up to its promise.
“So many families don’t qualify for it,” said Dawn Hawkins of North Philadelphia. “They told me I was not qualified because I owed them back money from 10 years ago.”
Hawkins, the mother of two — a 23-year-old and an 11-year-old who attends L.P. Hill Elementary School — meets the main requirement, but said she has been kept out by other eligibility hurdles.
Comcast rolled out the program in September.
At the time, officials estimated that it could bring low-cost Internet service to as many as 150,000 Philadelphia students. That figure was based on the number of students in the free and reduced lunch program, the program’s main eligibility requirement.
It was a figure Hawkins said was “baloney.”
“It’s not going to impact anywhere near 150,000 families,” she said.
Hawkins felt there was too much fine print — intended to keep out the people who needed it most.
“They should bring down some of the barriers for the children in the community,” she said. “Our children, over and over, have been left out.”
In response to the protest, Comcast issued a statement saying it was committed to expanding the program.
“The goal of Internet Essentials is to get more Americans online and help close the digital divide,” said the statement. “Comcast is proud of its groundbreaking program to help close the broadband adoption gap and is particularly pleased that the rest of the cable industry has committed to participate in a similar program developed by the FCC … Comcast is partnering with scores of organizations to raise awareness, level the playing field, and get those students and their families connected.”
Hawkins was part of a group of about 15 protestors with Action United that gathered at the corner of 18th St. and JFK Boulevard on Wednesday afternoon. Several police officers stood between protestors and the glass tower. The city’s tallest building was also the site of a protest last fall that led to 10 arrests after members of Occupy Philly invaded the lobby there.
This week’s protest followed a meeting earlier this month between Comcast officials, Action United and a group of parents — who urged Comcast to drop some of the more restrictive eligibility requirements. Among their suggestions: a commitment to enrolling 75,000 families in Philadelphia, creating payment plans for customers who owe back bills, allowing existing Comcast customers to take part and a ban on credit checks.
Hawkins took part in a Jan. 10 meeting.
“They didn’t want to hear what we had to say,” said Hawkins. “When we met with them we asked, ‘If we work out a way to pay the back bill, will we still be qualified? The answer was ‘No.’ So, why put the program out here when there is so many barriers?”
According to a Comcast official, “tens of thousands” of people have enrolled in the program in 39 states, where an estimated 2.5 million families could be eligible to participate.
An informal survey, done by Action United in December, found that of 107 parents who met income requirements, only two were eligible. The majority, 62 percent, had not heard of the program; eight percent had and tried to sign up but were hindered by several things: delinquent Comcast bills, an application process that was too time consuming, or already having Internet service.
Internet Essentials provides broadband Internet access for $9.95 a month, and guarantees no price increases, activation, equipment or rental fees. It also gives participants a voucher for the purchase of a Dell or Acer computer for $149.99 and provides free digital literacy training courses in print, online or in person.
To be eligible, in addition to having a child in the free lunch program, participants must: live where Comcast offers Internet service, have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days, and do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment.