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Baltimore City Council members urge FCC to strengthen regulation of internet service providers to improve students’ access

Local officials from across the country, including seven members of Baltimore City Council, have joined forces to lobby the Federal Communications Commission to improve access to internet service for communities of color and low-income areas.

In a letter written this week by Democratic City Council members Zeke Cohen, Kristerfer Burnett and Ryan Dorsey, the coalition of which they are members asked the FCC to create a commission dedicated to addressing what’s called digital redlining. That’s when areas that are home to Black and brown families are excluded or priced out of quality internet service.

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The letter, which also was signed by Democratic Baltimore council members Antonio Glover, Odette Ramos, Mark Conway and Sharon Green Middleton, in addition to dozens of other elected U.S. leaders, also asked the FCC to resume stronger authority over broadband providers. Such authority, applicable under a designation called Title II, previously governed such providers as a utility and created net neutrality rules. The commission reclassified the providers to a less-regulated status during the administration of former Republican President Donald Trump.

During a news conference Tuesday, Cohen, Burnett and Dorsey were joined by Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Democrat, and student activist Kimberly Vasquez to push for stricter regulation. They argued internet service providers have profited from the coronavirus pandemic.

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“We are tired of predatory providers like Comcast holding Black and brown children’s education for ransom during a pandemic,” said Cohen, a former educator.

Verizon and other companies also provide internet service in Baltimore, but council members specifically discussed Comcast on Tuesday.

An FCC spokesperson said they “welcome hearing from state and local leaders on the front lines on issues involving digital equity.”

“Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel believes that digital opportunity should be available to all, no matter who they are or where they live,” said Anne Veigle, deputy director of media relations for the commission.

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The phrase digital redlining is derived from an earlier term, redlining, used to describe a practice by some banks and other lenders in the 20th century to refuse to make home mortgage loans in neighborhoods they regarded as poor investments because Black families lived there. Color-coded maps marked areas the financial institutions considered unsafe to issue mortgages.

Lawmakers in Baltimore and elsewhere have been critical of Comcast’s Internet Essentials package for qualifying residential customers. Students and parents have complained it offers inferior service speeds as many students are trying to learn virtually during the pandemic.

After months of lobbying from council members and others, Comcast announced in February that it would increase download speeds for the $9.95 per month package from 25 Mbps (megabits per second) to 50 Mbps. Upload speeds were increased from 3 Mbps to 5 Mbps.

The increases fell well short of what council members and advocates called for.

Comcast spokeswoman Kristie Fox defended the Internet Essentials package Tuesday, arguing it has “helped to change the lives of over 8 million people, including 104,000 in Baltimore, by providing families with internet, regardless of their income or the ZIP code in which they live.”

Comcast has repeatedly enhanced the speeds offered by the program without increasing the cost and for 60 days during the pandemic provided the service for free, Fox said. The company has also launched 16 “Lift Zones” in Baltimore offering free high-speed Wi-Fi in community centers, she said.

On Tuesday, the coalition behind the letter continued to be critical of the communications giant.

Vasquez, a senior at Baltimore City College high school, said it’s not unusual for her to have to switch to using cellphone data during the virtual school day or to head to a parking lot to get the Wi-Fi she needs to study.

“As a student who heavily relies on Comcast Internet Essentials, it’s been clear this plan is nothing but a brick wall between me and my education,” said Vasquez, urging the FCC to become an “ally” for students.

“Although we have had these wins, it shouldn’t really fall upon students to fend for themselves and their communities against multimillion-dollar corporations like Comcast,” she added.

Council members also called for an investigation in January into Comcast’s plan to charge customers without unlimited internet plans up to $100 a month for data over 1.2 terabytes. As pressure mounted, the company announced last month it would not roll out its new data plan until 2022 for customers in its Northeast U.S. territory.

Gym, the Philadelphia councilwoman, said the School District of Philadelphia approached multiple internet service providers in 2020 to plead with them to open residential hot spots for students to access. After they refused, the school district spent $17 million to pay for hot spot access for students, she said.

In Baltimore, the city allocated $3 million from the city’s youth fund to buy equipment to get students access to the internet for virtual learning.

“We have gone as far as we can go,” Gym said. “Without the FCC partnership, we risk losing everything that has been advanced upon in the last year.”

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