Close Digital Divide and Protect Net Neutrality, Say New York City Council Members to Time Warner Cable and Comcast at New York State Public Service Commission hearing

 New York, NY– Today, New York City leaders demanded net neutrality and steps to close the digital divide at a New York State Public Service Commission hearing on the proposed Time Warner Cable-Comcast merger. Council Members Vacca, Kallos, Torres, Levin, Dromm, Van Bramer, Koslowitz and Constantinides called on the New York State Public Service Commission to demand a dramatic expansion of free and affordable broadband along with net neutrality in advance of a possible merger. The Commission has been tasked by Governor Cuomo to use its new regulatory powers to determine whether or not the merger serves customers’ and New Yorkers’ interests. 

The Council Members urged expansion of Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” program for affordable broadband to include all New York City residents receiving income-qualifying federal, state and city subsidies.

They also encouraged free access for:
•    NYCHA Public Housing – 403,120 residents and 175,587 families in 178,557 apartments;
•    Unemployment insurance benefit recipients; and
•    Institutions serving vital public needs such as 1,700 public schools serving 1.1 million students and 223 public library branches. 

The testimony criticized the scope of Comcast’s affordable broadband “Internet Essentials program,” which currently only serves 300,000 Americans of 7.2 million people making under $35,000 per year in Comcast’s service area. The merger would leave the Internet giant with 40% of all broadband users in the United States, and turn 2.6 million New Yorkers from Time Warner Cable to Comcast customers.

 Testimony was offered by Ben Kallos, Chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations and a software developer, on behalf of himself, James A. Vacca, Chair of the Committee on Technology, Stephen Levin, Chair of the Committee on General Welfare, Ritchie Torres, Chair of the Committee on public housing, Jimmy Van Bramer, Majority Leader and Chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Danny Dromm, Education Committee Chair, Karen Koslowitz, State and Federal Legislation Committee Chair and Costa Constantinides, Libraries Subcommittee Chair.

“If such a merger were to be in the public interest, it would include net neutrality, a guaranteed free and accessible flow of information and free or low-cost broadband for low-income residents. The digital divide entrenches lack of opportunity which cable giants such as Comcast and Time Warner have the capacity to change. Every New Yorker must have the same opportunity to reap the power of the world's knowledge on the Internet,” said Council Member Kallos. A democratic activist and software developer, Kallos first advocated for first advocated for universal broadband in 2009 during the city’s cable franchise renewal agreement.

“Considering the enormous financial benefits of this deal for Comcast, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they maintain an open Internet and make their broadband program affordable for low-income residents. After the merger, over 2.6 million people in the five boroughs will become customers of Comcast, so we have to ensure that New Yorkers are getting good services at a reasonable price,” said Council Member James A. Vacca, Chair of the Committee on Technology.

 “No matter what your income is, you should have access to broadband if you live in New York City. New Yorkers depend on having access to broadband and it is important that we expand low-cost Internet services throughout our City,” said Council Member Stephen Levin.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable announced a deal to merge in February and must receive approval from the Federal Communications Commission and state regulatory bodies in order to move forward. The New York State Public Service Commission has been authorized by Governor Cuomo to determine whether or not such a merger is in the public interest and has been holding hearings across the state, including in New York City on June 19, Albany on June 18 and Buffalo on June 16. The matter is also before the FCC with no hearings currently scheduled.

The testimony and letter to the Public Service Commission reads:
 
As Comcast, the largest cable company in the United States, seeks to acquire Time Warner Cable, the second largest with more than 2.6 million subscribers in this state, please use your new regulatory powers to determine whether or not the merger is in the best interest of existing customers and the residents of New York City and State.
 
We believe that such a merger would only be in the public interest if paired with net neutrality and a significant expansion of free and affordable Internet access for low-income families and individuals to reduce the digital divide.
 
The “Internet Essentials” program, launched by Comcast in 2011 to provide low-income households with affordable broadband is a positive first step but major shortfalls must be addressed. Only 2.6 million families of the 7.2 million families making under $35,000 in Comcast’s service area are eligible for the program, as it only applies to families with children eligible for federal free or reduced price lunch. Of that 2.6 million, a mere 300,000 families have applied. This does little to close the digital divide – the gap between those who can afford Internet access and those who cannot, a division that entrenches social and economic disparities.
 
We propose that you require an expansion of the “Internet Essentials” plan for New York customers as cited in part C, section One of the petition “The Transaction Will Generate Other Significant Public Benefits.” “Internet Essentials” must go beyond families with children on free and reduced lunch to provide free access to:

 

  • NYCHA Public Housing – 403,120 residents and 175,587 families in 178,557 apartments;
  • Unemployment insurance benefit recipients; and
  • Institutions serving vital public needs such as 1,700 public schools serving 1.1 million students and 223 public library branches.

 

Free or affordable access should also be provided to family and individual recipients of income-qualifying federal, state and city subsidies. Loopholes that deny “Internet Essentials” to old customers, those who have missed bill in the past, or those who have unreturned equipment must also be closed.
 
Closing the digital divide has been a priority of New York City and, indeed, our nation. The FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan includes the imperative to “create mechanisms to ensure affordability to low-income Americans,” noting that only 40% of adults making less than $20,000 per year adopted terrestrial broadband at home while 93% of adults earning more than $75,000 per year have adopted broadband at home.
 
This has also been a priority of the Mayor and City Council. Mayor Bill de Blasio has laid out a goal of universal affordable broadband to ensure all New Yorkers can carry out the fundamental tasks of accessing information, applying for jobs, communicating with co-workers and loved ones that broadband access facilitates. The City Council included the need to expand free Wi-Fi across our public parks in our budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.
 
As you consider a merger that will provide Comcast with 40% of all broadband customers in the United States, Comcast and Time Warner Cable must also – and equally importantly – voluntarily abide by the FCC’s Title II regulations banning unreasonable or unjust discrimination and ensure Net Neutrality. No provider, least of all one controlling such a huge share of Internet access, should control the flow of information on the Internet by speeding up or slowing down traffic for pay or based on content type. Currently, the FCC is seriously considering using its authority under the telecommunications regulation found in Title II of the Communications Act. Comcast and Time Warner Cable should choose to abide by these regulations voluntarily. All Americans and New Yorkers deserve access to the Internet—the same access, no matter their income levels or content types.
 
The merger between two corporate giants to become providers of one of America’s most crucial resources must, if approved, be in the public interest—and only ensuring affordable and unconstrained broadband access will guarantee that. We as representatives of America’s most populous city urge you to look towards a future where all families and individuals can reap the benefits of a competitive, free and open Internet.

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