Photo by Nicolas Mackall

Lead by student group Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society (SOMOS), Baltimore City Public Schools students held a socially-distanced press conference in front of City Hall on May 26. They demanded internet service provider Comcast make high speed internet access available to students across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“In Baltimore alone, 40.7% don’t have broadband access, the third worst connectivity rate for cities with over 500,00 people,” said Baltimore City College High School junior Kimberly Vasquez as three Baltimore lawmakers stood at a distance behind her wearing masks. 

Known as “the digital divide,” low income and communities of color are able to access high speed internet at far lower rates than wealthy communities. Around 200,000 Baltimore households with school-aged children lack access to high speed internet or a computer, a May 2020 Abell Foundation report found.

“Everyday I see the racial gap in internet access. Around 70% white households have access compared to 50% of African American households and 46% latino households,” Baltimore City Schools teacher and advisor to SOMOS Franca Muller Paz said at the press conference. “If Comcast doesn’t take a stand today, they are taking a stance to not educate Black and Brown students.”

Comcast, which holds a monopoly over residential internet access in Baltimore, said it has already taken steps to expand access during the pandemic by making its $9.95 Internet Essentials package available for free for two months to new customers who qualify for public assistance programs. It offers a speed of 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload—fast enough, Comcast says, to support three Zoom video conferencing calls at a time.

“To confront the COVID-19 epidemic, we proactively offered 60 days of free service to any new customers,” Comcast spokesperson Jeff Alexander said in an email to The Real News

Xfinity broadband access netted Comcast $4.72 billion in revenue in 2019, an increase of 9.3% from 2018.  

Teachers and students report that Comcast’s Internet Essentials package is insufficient and its  real world application only supports only one high speed connection at a time. For Vasquez, a member of SOMOS, each morning involves her family deciding which one of them gets to use the internet because they can’t use it all at once.

“Comcast’s digital package isn’t enough,” said Vasquez. “Currently Internet Essentials is only fast enough for one device.” 

Vasquez warned that if internet access isn’t expanded, “schools risk an unprecedented dropout rate.” Vasquez co-authored a letter to Comcast dated May 22 demanding the speed of its Essentials package increase to 100Mbps download and 25Mbps upload, fast enough for five concurrent internet connections: “Baltimore City’s young people are being denied their human right to learn and work. The crisis in education began long before COVID-19 and we must keep the gap from widening.”

The letter also demands the free internet service be extended for 60 days after schools are reopened, as well as access to Comcast internet hotspots for corporate clients: “It is important for Comcast to provide the people of Baltimore with a fast and reliable internet plan during this challenging time. Our families need time to save money after this unprecedented period of job loss.”

First District Councilman Zeke Cohen, a former Baltimore City Schools teacher, signed the letter along with over 100 local organizations.

“The reality is that we live in a city where the internet has been redlined. If you look at how the federal government carved out redline maps and gave them to banks and asked them to not lend in black communities, that’s where we lack wifi today. It’s a shame that 40% of this city lacks high speed internet access,” Cohen said at the press conference. “If you can’t get online, you can’t learn. I hear horror stories all day long, of teachers desperately trying to track down their students, about parents who are overworked, overwhelmed, who are stressed out.”

Cohen stressed that this is not only an issue in Baltimore: “This is not just a Baltimore fight, this is a Cleveland fight, a Philadelphia fight, West Virginia fight,” he said.

Nationally, approximately 4 in 10 low income African-American and Latinx households lack broadband access, Pew Research found. Only 70% of rural areas have access to high speed access, according to a 2018 FCC report. Cohen acknowledged municipal broadband could be a long-term solution to bridge the digital divide. Over 500 municipalities offer broadband access either directly or indirectly, and these providers tend to be more affordable and more accessible to traditionally marginalized communities.

District 13 Councilwoman Shannon Sneed also spoke, and urged Comcast to make high speed internet available free for those who can’t afford it.

“If we say education is important, if we say education matters, this is the way we can show them they matter,” Sneed said. 

Baltimore City Delegate Stephanie Smith, chair of Baltimore’s City’s State Delegation, also urged Comcast to act.

“If you don’t have access to information for your education your future is being stymied and that’s not an adequate response to COVID-19,” she said. “Corporate responsibility has a role in the COVID-19 response.”