The City’s Internet Access Plan is A Win for Families, But Far From Enough

Today, the City of Philadelphia announced their plan to get every student online ahead of online instruction scheduled to begin this fall. In the face of extraordinary pressure from parents, educators, and community members, this shows that the City of Philadelphia is beginning to listen to our voices as we demand the internet is a human right, especially for our children as they face a fully online return to school in this pandemic.

The City’s partnership with Comcast, an integral feature to the plan, includes a sizable payment from Comcast’s philanthropic arm, the Comcast Foundation, to the Comcast Corporation to cover the costs of providing discount service ‘Internet Essentials’ for the families of students who are not online. The City is also working with T-Mobile to provide mobile hotspots to transient students and in partnership with some of Philadelphia’s largest foundation partners, has committed to hiring new digital navigators, who will work to identify and assist students who need internet access..

While this plan is a notable win for Philly’s students, educators, and the community members who have been organizing and advocating to close the digital divide ahead of the upcoming school year, it is far from enough: 

  • Families still need Comcast to increase upload and download speeds for its Internet Essentials Program. Without this commitment, Comcastwill fail to meet the needs of households with multiple students. Parents who are unemployed and looking for work will also struggle to access the internet while their children are receiving an online education. 
  • Educators, including paraprofessionals, should be included in this plan. Paraprofessionals, like assistant teachers, are underpaid and required to have internet access to perform their essential duties for the upcoming school year.  
  • Comcast must open its residential hotspots. Comcast is choosing profits over people by refusing to open their residential hot spots–something crucial for homeless, English-language learning, and transient students who can’t get Internet Essentials. While hotspots will help with some transient students, the district literally lost 1000 students this spring.  Some won’t be reached through this plan.  Only by opening its network, so students can see open wifi they can use, will the majority of students be served in this urgent moment.Comcast claims that its network was not designed for public use, but it’s seen an 11,000% increase in usage of their public hotspots without negatively impacting service levels. 
  • Comcast should make more of a financial investment for internet access. In places like Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago, local officials are preparing to pay Comcast to get students online in preparation for the upcoming school year, despite school districts experiencing unprecedented budget deficits. In Philadelphia, while Comcast has donated $7mil, the city will still have to pay some in order for families to get the internet access they need, despite Comcast’s extraordinary wealth. Comcast should cover the vast majority of the costs in all  rural and city communities where it has a majority of the market share. 

For Black, brown, and poor communities across the country, Comcast’s greed is the root cause of the digital divide.This is a beginning, and we will continue to fight in our neighborhoods and in the halls of power demanding “internet for all” in every community.

– Devren Washington, Senior Policy Organizer at Movement Alliance Project and Coordinator of the Philly Tech Justice Coalition