When Comcast’s Business As Usual Turns Out to Limit Minority Access
What happens when a plutocrat’s “rational” decisions wind up affecting minority areas? Take a look at Hartford.
Late last month, CTC Technology & Energy, an independent consulting firm that had been retained by the state of Connecticut, released a report that included some shocking stories about business connectivity in Hartford, the capital of the state. Connecticut has the highest per capita income of all fifty states. Hartford is largely black (38%) and Hispanic (43%). Connecticut as a whole is mostly white (69%).
CTC found that high-quality fiber and cable high-speed Internet access services did exist close to the business locations in Hartford that the firm visited. But close doesn’t mean connected. And the businesses CTC talked to said that they’d have to pay sky-high amounts to Comcast to get hooked up — and after that it would cost them enormous monthly fees to have a persistent connection.
For example, Comcast has service 100 feet away from a business incubator run by the Conference of Churches in Hartford. Right now, the incubator — ready to house 200 people who should be able to connect simultaneously — has to use DSL service from Frontier that has an upload speed of 0.89 Mbps when no one is using it. But when multiple people do want to use it, that Frontier connection often fails completely.
Comcast told the Conference of Churches it would cost $30,000 to run service to the building and that the monthly charge would be $1,000-$2,000. Not happening.
Similarly, Scotts’ Jamaican Bakery has to rely on awful DSL service from Frontier that collapses if you try to use it for voice or video (and costs $290/month). Comcast has a fiber node on the street where the bakery has its office, but the company told the bakery owner that connecting to that node would cost $600,000. Not possible.
Comcast indignantly objected to the CTC study and revised its quote, saying that installation would cost just $200,000. Quite a deal for a minority baker in Hartford. And now Comcast is busy “reaching out” to the other Hartford businesses identified in the CTC report, carrying out its version of a clean-up campaign.
Late last year Donnell Layne, Chief Operating Officer of the Krimson Technology Group in Chicago, told me a similar story about the Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation, located in a majority black Chicago-land community. Greater Englewood’s CDC has a mission of supporting young entrepreneurs and other people trying to revitalize their community. Its space could be home to 55 businesses. But those businesses couldn’t effectively get online over the terrible DSL service AT&T was providing.
The CDC asked Comcast for service, and was told it would cost $80,000 to install high-speed Internet access in the building. “A lot of these low income areas don’t explicitly look like they have a high need for Internet,” Layne says. And wires go where the companies see a higher need and a business model that meets Wall Street’s insatiable demands.
Layne has engineering degrees from Cornell and Northwestern, and his day job is running IT for the Nobel Network of Charter Schools. He addressed Greater Inglewood CDC’s problem on his own time by beaming a line-of-sight microwave connection from the CDC’s roof to a carrier’s rooftop antenna. (Here’s a video of Donnell Layne speaking, at 1:07:00.) That’s the same solution that the Conference of Churches came up with in Hartford: there was a state antenna half a mile away to which the Conference of Churches could possibly send a signal. Both solutions route around getting a wire into the building; a second-best solution, even though the results are far better than the DSL status quo. Krimson has dreams of serving entire communities with free WiFi — they’re looking for donations. The Conference of Churches ran into legal access and liability issues and is back to square one.
Comcast’s response to all of this? The company dismisses CTC’s report out of hand, saying it has a great network in Connecticut, “delivering the fastest, most reliable speeds from 3 Mbps up to 2 Gigabits per second for residential customers and up to 10 Gigabits for business customers.” Notice that Comcast never says that the facts in the CTC report are wrong — a remarkably tone-deaf response from the company. Instead, the company’s claim is that the CTC report isolates some “one-off exceptions” to a great high-speed Internet access situation in Connecticut. Similarly, Comcast says that it will be launching 2 Gigabit service in the “greater Chicago region.”
The company never says anything about price and makes no promises to serve everyone. If these services are everywhere, why can’t these minority businesses get them? And how much will it cost them to sign up? No one knows.
And now, in Connecticut, Comcast and its allies are in a knock-down political fight (evidenced by this article and this opinion piece in the Hartford Courant) to eliminate the high-speed Internet access office within the state government that commissioned the CTC report revealing this terrible state of affairs in the first place. Here’s a quote from Kevin Rennie, a former one-term Republican representative with a column in the Hartford Courant:
[Governor] Malloy’s [just-released] budget makes a start on reducing programs and services that we can live without. He cuts funding to the useless Office of State Broadband within the Office of Consumer Counsel at the state’s utility regulator. That saves more than $300,000 for an unnecessary activity and an office that butts into an area that the private sector has handled just fine. These are the sort of superfluous, bossy government ventures that we can live without, despite the cries of infamy that will accompany the cut.
They’ve got State Sen. Robert Duff, the Senate Majority Leader, claiming in a recent press release that “Connecticut’s Economy Boasts A Thriving Broadband Infrastructure and Continued Broadband Industry Investment” — that, in other words, everything is just fine. On the whole. In the rich parts of the state that are “worth” serving from the carriers’ points of view.
Both the Hartford and Chicago stories involve incubators aimed at giving new businesses a place to start — grassroots economic development. What could be more painful to those new businesses than the absence of adequate connectivity?
Just imagine an entire chunk of our population gasping for air or being forced to drink Flint’s water. We’ve permitted the electronic equivalent of that horrifying vision to play out in our cities. According to Bill Owens, Chief Development Officer of Krimson Technology, low-income areas like Englewood are now living 40 or 50 years in the past.
For all my own inveighing in the past few years against the unconstrained power of Comcast in America, I’ve always said the company is acting rationally — it’s not, itself, evil. Plutocrats are not necessarily prejudiced. But Comcast is a dividend-generating machine, an ATM with lawyers on top, whose reasonable, presumably benevolent actions over time are resulting in grave problems for areas that just “happen” to be non-white.
Does motivation excuse consequences? What will America do about the reality that a basic utility — world-class access to the Internet — may be prohibitively expensive for businesses in low-income-area buildings Comcast has chosen not to serve?
The answer is cheap, open wholesale fiber networks in every neighborhood and city — facilities that, just like street grids, enable retail competition to thrive. (Here’s a detailed, practical proposal for making sure these networks exist nationwide.) Right now, our policies simply enable local monopolists to extract huge rents from those who can least afford them; good for the monopolists’ shareholders, but bad for everyone else and for the country’s future.
We admire success, but we treasure fairness and opportunity.
Illustration by Nicolas Dehghani for Backchannel.