A coalition of Baltimore youth advocates and City Council members is calling on Comcast to expand internet access available to the city’s low-income residents, saying during a news conference Tuesday that the internet has become a public utility for children trying to learn during the coronavirus pandemic.
Led by Students Organizing a Multicultural & Open Society, or SOMOS, the group is calling on Comcast to extend its free offering of its Internet Essentials service, a reduced-bandwidth version of internet service available to lower income residents at a discounted monthly price.
Comcast is currently offering the Internet Essentials service for free for 60 days to new subscribers in the city to help bring more people online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group wants to see that offer extended until 60 days after schools are back in the classroom.
The group also called on the company to increase download and upload speeds offered through the Internet Essentials program as well as open up all of its WiFi hotspots to the public.
Customers who have “Internet Essentials” service are capped at a download rate of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload rate of 3 Mbps, which the group wants to see raised to 100 Mbps and 25 Mbps, respectively.
The issue of internet access is one that has drawn attention nationwide as classes have moved online in response to pandemic. In addition to some Baltimore and state legislators, SOMOS also has the support of David Hornbeck, the former Superintendent of Maryland and Philadelphia public schools.
More than 40% of Baltimore residents do not have broadband internet access, the third worst rate in the country, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for national broadband access.
Baltimore officials have said in recent years that aging infrastructure and a lack of interest from other cable operators have kept other services from being offered in the city.
Kimblery Vasquez, a Baltimore City College student whose parents have Comcast’s Internet Essentials package said that while the offering has helped, the limitations on download and upload speeds make them unreliable for regular classwork.
“Currently, Internet Essentials speeds are enough for one device to video conference at a time,” Vasquez said.
She also called on the company to open up all of its Xfinity WiFi hotspots, including those of customers with leased Comcast modems, to the public for free until 60 days after classes are fully restored.
She said students are risking their safety by getting their WiFi from public hotspots outside of city libraries and McDonald’s.
In a letter to the group dated Tuesday, Comcast does not directly address the requests, instead pointing to its current offerings and donations as well as inviting the group to further partnerships.
“The average home with 25/3 Mbps speed can support up to three high-quality Zoom calls at the same time, four simultaneous high-quality video calls on Skype and as many as three simultaneous group video calls on Microsoft Teams, as well as educational sources like Khan Academy and Blackboard,” wrote Misty Allen, vice president for Comcast’s Beltway Region.
Allen wrote that the 104,000 Baltimoreans, or more than one out of every six residents, get internet access through the Internet Essentials program and that the company raised the download speeds to 25 Mbps and upload speeds to 3 Mbps for all customers.
As for opening up further Wi-Fi hotspots, Allen wrote that Comcast’s “public hotspot network is the largest in North America and is three times as large as any other Internet service provider’s publicly available Wi-Fi network.”
At the news conference, Councilman Zeke Cohen said “the reality is that we live in a city where the internet has been red-lined."
He said that areas without common internet access mirror those regions in the city that were denied loans by banks before the Civil Rights era because they were predominantly black neighborhoods.
“We live in a nation where we treat the internet like a luxury instead of a public need,” Cohen said. “If you can’t get online, very simply, you can’t learn.”
Cohen also noted how the issue has risen to national importance, saying “this isn’t just a Baltimore fight. This is a Cleveland fight. This is a Philadelphia fight.”
While studies by the Federal Communications Commission have found around 21 million Americans lack broadband internet, experts say the number is likely much higher, with study conducted by Microsoft estimating that 162 million people lack broadband internet.
“This is a national campaign and we intend to win,” Cohen said.
Franca Muller Paz, a Baltimore city schools teacher, said that while the majority of white households in the city have internet access, about half of black households do and less than half of Hispanic households are online.
If Comcast does not expand its services, she said, “they are deciding that it is okay not to educate one out of every two black and brown students that we have here in the city.”
In a statement, Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander said “for nearly a decade, there has been no company more committed to bridging the digital divide in Baltimore, and across the nation, than Comcast.”