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Here’s how Comcast could be a better community partner in Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen urges Comcast to close the digital divide, and was joined by student activists from Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society (SOMOS), at right, educators and other advocates outside City Hall. They all spoke about the necessity of internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. State Del. Stephanie Smith and fellow City Council member Shannon Sneed also urged Comcast to act.
Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen urges Comcast to close the digital divide, and was joined by student activists from Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society (SOMOS), at right, educators and other advocates outside City Hall. They all spoke about the necessity of internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. State Del. Stephanie Smith and fellow City Council member Shannon Sneed also urged Comcast to act. (Amy Davis)

Many businesses have struggled during the pandemic, but not Comcast. In fact, cable companies have been one of the bright spots in the economy as so many people are stuck at home for work, school and entertainment. Just look at Comcast’s fiscal fourth-quarter earnings, released last week, for proof. The company beat analyst estimates and added 11 million subscribers to its new Peacock streaming service, along with 538,000 high-speed internet customers. The company’s CEO said it expects its outlook to continue improving throughout the year, so much so that it raised its dividend and plans to reward investors by repurchasing shares later this year.

Since the publicly traded company is doing so well, one might think they could afford to be a good corporate citizen and community partner when it comes to bridging the digital equity divide. But apparently Comcast officials don’t have to play nice when they are the dominant game in town. Instead, the company has been at constant odds with Baltimore City officials and advocates over access to the internet services Baltimore children need for online learning. The latest friction comes over a data cap — Comcast prefers to call it a data threshold — that the company plans to put on its Xfinity internet customers starting in August, with additional charges for households that use too much service, more than 1.2 terabytes, and don’t sign up for unlimited plans.

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This, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in Maryland still don’t have access to high-speed internet, including nearly 100,000 households — more than 40% — in Baltimore City, an Abell Foundation report found.

Critics have called foul and accused the company of being insensitive as families are struggling financially and need the internet more than ever because of COVID. Three Baltimore City councilmen — Ryan Dorsey, Zeke Cohen and Kristerfer Burnett — and the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition have called for Maryland Attorney Brian Frosh to conduct a price gouging investigation. In reality, Comcast says the new rules would only affect a small percentage of its customers, so it seems that it likely wouldn’t touch many school children’s families. But as the council members point out there are families with several members using the internet simultaneously for school and work, driving usage up for many households.

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At any rate, the timing is bad, and the optics poor as well. They should scrap the cap altogether, since it doesn’t seem to be hurting the bottom line and just adds to the bad blood the company already has with the city and its residents. Competitor Verizon announced in January a $20 per month high-speed internet plan with no data caps for low-income people.

Comcast says it has been a good partner offering a $9.95 per month Internet Essentials plan to families who qualify for other subsidized services. But families — and at least one former employee — complained it was too slow for online schooling, and only after months of pressure from lawmakers and student advocates did Comcast agree Tuesday to increase the speeds. It also won’t charge these customers for using excessive data through 2021. Comcast also argues it offers 60-days of free Internet Essentials service to new customers and waives back-debt families may have with the company. It has also opened thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots in outdoor and small business locations and provided Wi-Fi in community centers called Lift Zones.

We congratulate them for that. And suggest they still do more, such as temporarily waiving internet fees for families who can’t afford even the Internet Essentials package. This is what some advocates have asked for — not for eternity, but while school is virtual. It would be the charitable thing to do. Of course, it doesn’t have to give its product away for free, no matter how much people complain. Which leads us to another issue: the lack of cable competition in the city. As the main player in town, Comcast has more leeway to operate as it wants and not bow to public pressure. After all, it has shareholders to answer to and keep happy, not just customers.

If City Council members and advocates are tired of battling with Comcast, perhaps it is time to look seriously at bringing other players to the market or even exploring the benefits of a municipal broadband system, or one run by the city. While these systems can be complicated to run, the benefits are that they tend to create greater choice over broadband service, which results in better prices and in many cases a smaller digital divide.

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The digital divide is just one of the many inequities the pandemic has exposed. But it also has given new momentum to look for ways to close gaps. But only if people take the initiative.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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