As remote learning dragged on through 2020, the coronavirus pandemic pitted Comcast against an unlikely opponent: a group of teenagers.
Since last spring, Baltimore-based student activists have been waging a campaign for faster internet speeds and arguing that the telecom behemoth’s Wi-Fi offering for low-income households, Internet Essentials, isn’t always fast enough for successful distance learning.
Comcast has repeatedly insisted that its speeds meet the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standard for high-speed broadband — but now, a former employee who quit his job in frustration has come forward to say that, based on his experience, Internet Essentials isn’t providing the service students need to learn.
Internet Essentials costs $9.95 per month — considerably cheaper than a standard plan, but also considerably slower. The program is targeted at families who already qualify for other subsidized services, like food assistance or housing benefits. Comcast introduced Internet Essentials in 2011 as a bargaining chip with federal regulators as part of its acquisition of NBCUniversal, the Washington Post reported at the time. (NBCUniversal is an investor in BuzzFeed.)
“If it was working technically and that was enough, there wouldn’t be so many people calling with problems,” former Comcast employee Chase Roper, whose tweet about Internet Essentials went viral earlier this month, told BuzzFeed News.
Roper told BuzzFeed News that he quit Comcast in part because of how difficult it was for him to tell Internet Essentials customers who were struggling to get online that the only way to improve their speeds was to upgrade to a more expensive service.
“Why offer a thing that meets the bare minimum technical requirement when that’s not going to be enough?” Roper told BuzzFeed News. “Why not say, ‘You qualify for this kind of assistance; let’s give you an upload speed in the double digits so your kid can access their education’?”
Roper’s experience dealing with customers as a salesperson at Comcast, which he chronicled in a blog post, echoes what the students who went head-to-head with the company have said about their struggles with Internet Essentials speeds. So far, Comcast has repeatedly declined to increase those speeds, saying that what it currently offers should be sufficient for “multiple concurrent videoconferencing sessions.”
After the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March, Comcast increased Internet Essentials from a 15-megabits-per-second (Mbps) download speed and 2 Mbps upload to meet the FCC’s current definition of high-speed broadband — 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. The company, which set an all-time record for new broadband customers and beat investor expectations with $25.53 billion of revenue in the third quarter of 2020, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that it has “worked tirelessly to help families stay connected” throughout the pandemic.
The current Internet Essentials rate technically meets the requirements to run the programs typically used by students, like Zoom, which needs a speed of at least 1.5 Mbps upload and download, though this depends on what video settings you use. But even when a speed test showed students in Baltimore that they were technically getting high-speed broadband — 24.7 download and 3.41 upload, in one example — they still said they were having trouble videoconferencing.
Roper said that talking with Comcast customers every day showed him how wide the gulf is between families who can afford top-tier internet connections and those who can’t, and opened his eyes to the way in which inequality infringes on some students’ right to a public education.
“I had a parent call in who has four kids — two were in college, two in high school and middle school,” he said. “They were paying for a second internet connection at their house, both for 1-gigabit-per-second download speed, to make sure all the kids had no problems. I was just like, Wow, the privilege to be able to do that when there are for sure kids in the same district who can’t even get a connection, and they’ll be graded the same.”
A typical school day at the home of Kimberly Vasquez, a senior at Baltimore City College high school, starts with her youngest sister, a third-grader, logging on to Zoom.
“Since she’s first to get online, usually she has no problem getting on to her class,” Vasquez told BuzzFeed News. Then her middle sister, a first-year student in high school, logs on via the family’s Internet Essentials Wi-Fi.
“I’m the last one to get on,” said Vasquez, “and that’s where I see the most challenges.”
Vasquez, bespectacled and eloquent, said it’s normal for her to refresh the page several times before she can even enter the Zoom. Once she’s in, she frequently gets kicked out because of slow speeds.
“Sometimes that means a minute, sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes an hour,” Vasquez said. “I’ve had to go to class late — or, in the middle of class, it’s really created a problem for me being focused. Especially since now for each class I only have two hours every week, when it used to be five hours for each class, so that class time is really important.”
When she gets disconnected from her classes, which include advanced math and chemistry, Vasquez has to text other students to let the teacher know. Later, she’ll ask classmates to help her review the material she missed while she couldn’t connect.
“I’ve definitely had to talk to my teachers about my Wi-Fi situation and making sure I’m not being penalized for it and having good communication so it doesn't seem like I don't want to go to class,” she said.
In the spring, when distance learning seemed like it might only be temporary, Vasquez, her classmates, and her teachers tried to be patient. But as it became increasingly obvious that the pandemic would last well into the next school year, they started talking to each other about how to resolve the issues with technology.
“We started talking about addressing an issue in the city, which is [that] we didn’t have high-quality internet or devices for students,” said Yashira Valenzuela-Morillo, who, like Vasquez, is a senior at Baltimore City College. “The pandemic was highlighting those issues.”
Vasquez and Valenzuela-Morillo are members of a group called SOMOS, or Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society. A teacher helped connect the group with the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition, and they began working on a list of demands and a plan to achieve them.
In April, the group successfully secured $3 million in city funding for laptops but quickly realized they weren’t worth much without sufficiently fast Wi-Fi to use them. So they decided to reach out to the city’s largest internet provider, Comcast, to ask about increasing low-cost WiFi speeds to 100 Mbps.
“Our three demands were to increase Internet Essentials speeds to a higher amount than originally stated, to increase internet speeds until 60 days after school was restored, and to open up residential hotspots until school was restored,” Valenzuela-Morillo said.
Comcast didn’t meet their demands; in a May letter reviewed by BuzzFeed News, the company thanked the students for their efforts but assured them that Internet Essentials is able to 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.”
The students didn’t give up. Baltimore City Council members who supported their efforts were in touch with people in cities who were also struggling to do remote learning via Internet Essentials. The students circulated a petition that drew over 1,500 signatures. In September, they hosted a press conference along with educators and leaders from Detroit, Philadelphia, Colorado, and Louisiana, demanding a response to the fact that “the internet is inequitably distributed across lines of race and class.”
Comcast offered to try and help the students with their individual home internet problems, but still didn’t agree to meet their broader demands. One SOMOS student, Aliyah Abid, had been struggling to get a connection at home at all. “After telling an executive our problem, she took care of it. But if it weren’t for her, I’m sure I would have gone probably months with no internet,” she said.
As Vasquez pointed out, “not everyone has the luxury of calling up the rep to go to their house.”
In the end, Internet Essentials speeds remain the same as they were in spring 2020. “We told them what our three demands were, and they said no three times,” Valenzuela-Morillo said.
“They seem out of touch with how families are,” she continued. “They assume families aren’t up to date with technology, and that it’s just going to be one student out of five or six people who are going to have to be using the internet. … They’re more focused on getting money out of the city and low-income families instead of providing a good-quality service.”
In 2018, a report by the Abell Foundation found that 40% of homes in Baltimore were not wired for internet access. “If you map where those homes are, they are disturbingly similar to the redlining maps of the 1940s,” said Zeke Cohen, a Baltimore City Council member who is pushing Comcast to provide better service to families who can't afford full-price internet. “The digital divide is really a remnant of redlining and housing segregation. In 2018, that was a problem. We used to call it the “homework gap.” But in 2020, with COVID-19, it became a crisis.”
Cohen said the issues with Internet Essentials speeds, which disproportionately impact Black and brown students, became apparent as soon as the pandemic forced classes online in spring 2020. “Overwhelmingly, what we hear is that, at the minimum upload and download speeds, children were not able to get their education,” he said.
But when the SOMOS students met with Comcast (via Zoom, of course), Cohen, who was present, said executives were dismissive of their concerns. “There was a meeting with an executive, myself, and a few students where the young people said really clearly that they were having trouble learning online because the speeds weren’t fast enough, and the executive essentially said, ‘what you’re saying is not accurate.’”
Cohen said the tweet by Roper, the former Comcast employee, was validating. “We now know from the whistleblower that the students were right,” he said.
When Vasquez saw the tweet, she was relieved. “Thank god someone said something and it got traction,” she said. “We were losing hope.”
Comcast said it’s “continually improving our Internet Essentials program,” which currently does meet the FCC’s definition of high-speed broadband, and some of the service’s customers say they’re pleased with it.
“We’ve worked tirelessly to help families stay connected — providing free Internet Essentials for 60 days; giving everyone access to 1.5 million public WiFi hotspots for free; working with cities and schools to connect large numbers of K-12 students at home; and providing free WiFi at hundreds of community centers,” a Comcast spokesperson said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News.
In October, the FCC included Comcast on a list of internet providers it praised for going “above and beyond the call to keep Americans connected,” specifically noting that it had increased download speeds to 25 Mbps in March.
But some policymakers have questioned whether that speed, which the FCC determined as the standard for high-speed broadband in 2015, is fast enough to really serve families in 2020.
“It’s crazy because we’re currently in a pandemic where everything has gone online,” Valenzuela-Morillo said regarding the current definition of broadband.
SOMOS decided to take its fight to the FCC directly, meeting with Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC commissioner who President Joe Biden has since named as acting chair.
Rosenworcel replaced former commissioner Ajit Pai, who at one point in his eight-year tenure suggested lowering the definition of broadband speeds. In a tweet at the time, Rosenworcel called the idea “crazy.”
Though the FCC did not respond to questions about whether it has plans to raise the broadband standards, a spokesperson for the agency pointed to her comments on the issue from a September hearing.
“The FCC should commit now to taking stock of the lessons learned when we are on the other side of this pandemic,” Rosenworcel said in September. “For those households that are connected, so many are video calling, streaming, and uploading content at the same time. Our providers are seeing unprecedented new patterns in usage. We need to study these changes because they represent the future. What bandwidth is being used? At what speeds? Our national standard for broadband is 25 Megabits per second up and 3 Megabits per second down. Is that low for what we demand from our online experiences today? Is that keeping pace with the rest of the world?”
When Roper, the former Comcast employee, quit his job, he didn’t necessarily plan to make his opinions about the company public. But shortly afterward, he saw an ad that described Internet Essentials as a useful tool for low-income families, and he was reminded of all the phone calls he fielded from customers who needed faster internet but couldn’t afford to upgrade. “[Internet Essentials] felt like it was more of a PR move to look good and funnel people in to be able to sell them other things,” he said.
Indeed, Cohen, the Baltimore City Council member, pointed out that Comcast has “dramatically expanded their internet customer base during this pandemic.” The company added 633,000 broadband subscribers in the third quarter of 2020 alone.
“They could make it faster,” Cohen said. “They control the conduit. They could make it free for families below the poverty line. They are an enormous, extremely financially secure company.”
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the pandemic is ongoing and schools are continuing distance learning for the spring 2021 semester. That means Vasquez and her sisters face at least another few months of competing for bandwidth in order to learn.
Vasquez said she’s talked to her parents about upgrading the family to a regular Comcast account, which gets you 200 Mbps of download speed, compared to the family’s current 25 Mbps. But that would cost at least $54.99 a month — a significant increase from the Internet Essentials price of $9.95.
For now the family is testing a new modem to see if that helps. “If that doesn't work, I think we’re going to have to pay more,” Vasquez said. “At the end of the day, it’s our education that’s on the line.” ●