Comcast Says Its Sudden Love Of The Poor Is Just Altruistic 'Serendipity,' In No Way Tied To Wanting Merger Approval
from the really-really-really-genuine dept
To get its acquisition of NBC Universal approved, Comcast proposed a merger condition requiring the company provide $10 broadband to select low-income families in its footprint for three years. The company has gleaned endless PR traction from the “Internet Essentials” program, launching and re-launching the effort in school district after school district with a string of photo ops featuring Comcast’s top lobbyist (uh, “Chief Diversity Officer“) David Cohen standing among a sea of smiling childrens’ faces. Of course in typical Comcast fashion the company made it intentionally hard to qualify and sign up for.
To get the offer you need to qualify for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), can’t currently have or had Comcast service in the last 90 days, and can’t owe Comcast money. Given the latter two are pretty common among the poor, many folks were disqualified out of the gate. Critics also pointed out that Comcast wasn’t advertising the program (outside of press junkets designed to congratulate itself), so many poor families had no idea it existed. A year or two ago these concerns resulted in some street protests in Comcast’s hometown of Philadelphia.
Since then Comcast has made some modest tweaks to the program, including a limited-time “amnesty” offer for past due balances. Not surprisingly, the company is again using the program as the centerpiece of its attempt to get its Time Warner Cable acquisition approved by regulators. And once again, critics are saying that Comcast’s love of the poor is a lot of hot air used to push through deals that overall will hurt the poor by exacerbating the industry’s competitive woes:
“Yet programs by Comcast and other cable companies offering cheap Internet aren?t benefiting enough low-income families, critics say. Comcast?s Internet Essentials, the biggest, has reached 350,000 households — or about 13 percent of those eligible, according to one estimate. Cox Communications Inc., which has the capacity to provide service to 10 million homes, reports 15,000 subscribers. Time Warner Cable dropped its $9.95 offer after a year. The programs have tight eligibility criteria and balky signup procedures, where they exist at all, its detractors say.
“Everybody would like to pretend they?re doing something,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president with the Washington-based policy group Public Knowledge. “Cable has not done anything real in this space.”
Over the years Comcast has gotten amusingly indignant whenever anybody dares try to suggest that Comcast’s restrictive low-income programs are anything other than pure altruism. Earlier this year Cohen breathlessly told the Washington Post that you can criticize Comcast for a lot of things, but that its love of the poor wasn’t one of them:
“This makes me sigh,? Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said in an interview. ?You can criticize us for data consumption caps. You can criticize us because cable bills are too high. You can criticize us because the acquisition of Time Warner Cable will make us too big. I can understand that. But every once in a while, even a big company does a good thing for the right reasons.”
Fast forward to this month and again, Comcast tells Bloomberg that the fact it decided to love the poor right around the time it wanted something from government wasn’t self-serving, it was “serendipity”:
“Comcast was considering a program like Internet Essentials before presenting it to the FCC, said Charlie Douglas, a spokesman for the Philadelphia-based company. He called it ?a serendipity of timing.”
Which is funny, given that I specifically remember a 2012 Washington Post love letter to David Cohen in which Cohen clearly points out the program was always designed to curry favor with regulators, but was delayed specifically to get approval for its NBC acquisition.
I’m not looking to pooh pooh the program completely, given that 350,000 households getting cheap broadband is at least something. But Internet Essentials is just one glaring example of how a company like Comcast is allowed to draft its own flimsy merger conditions, which amusingly even then it often struggles to adhere to. That’s in stark contrast to regulators actually doing their jobs and drafting tough but sensible policies that encourage competition, ultimately driving broadband prices down for the benefit of everybody.