Commentary by Steve Effros
It seems like I have had to write one variation or another of this column far too many times lately. Once again we are back at reading articles or listening to folks make arguments that don't seem to apply to anyone other than us. When the same actions are taken by others, they are in the public interest. When we take them, it's a nefarious scheme!
This time it's a piece in The New York Times, and reporters who appear to be manipulated to frame arguments for purposes they are not fully familiar with (or maybe they agree with them and have decided to make editorial statements in the guise of reporting). The editors should have known better.
The article is headlined with the notion that there is significant concern about the program Comcast is offering for discounted broadband service and affordable computers for kids whose families would not normally be able to purchase such connectivity at home. The program is a success and it is being expanded. Other major ISPs, Comcast included, are also part of a similar nonprofit program (Connect2Compete) being promoted by a large segment of the telecom industry. But the focus of the article is that there is concern (two people are cited) that Comcast is somehow being nefarious by promoting their already operational program and maybe then trying to offer their other services to those folks. In other words, its just a sales gimmick, and Comcast should be criticized for engaging in such activities!
Well, let's get a few things straight. First, while the program Comcast initiated before anyone else was made part of the FCC's conditions regarding the merger of Comcast and NBCU, the suggestion (with one unattributed source) that Comcast didn't really want to do this and was forced to by the Commission is totally off-base. The industry, including Comcast, had been working for some time on ways to deal with the so-called “digital divide,” and this idea was one of them.
A second suggestion, that the service offered is sub-par (because it's “only” 3MB downstream) is also just absurd for anyone who understands the technology needed to connect to the Internet and interact the way the government has encouraged for the purpose of students doing schoolwork or research on the web.
Finally there's the whole notion that this is just a marketing gimmick to “upsell” folks on broadband service. Note, please, that in articles on the same day the head of the FCC was promoting the idea that cities ought to upsell and find ways to finance “1-Gig” service as necessary for the education and economy of the future! I should also note that The New York Times and other papers offer student discounts for their wares, but are not maligned for also trying to sell full subscriptions to their offerings. The same is true of Amazon with its free book library, which also encourages the purchase of newer books, or many other efforts (Microsoft computer programs, for instance) offered at student discounts.
Why is it that when the broadband industry, and particularly the largest player do what everyone seems to agree is a good thing it gets smeared? I would suggest that there's another dynamic at work that at least the editors should have known about, and it was quietly inserted in the article itself: there's a campaign going on to push for “public utility, common carrier” conversion of the industry. For those pushing that agenda, any concocted criticism is fair game. It's embarrassing. The editors should have known better.