The digital divide grows wider every moment and, with it, income inequality -- but we have a chance to significantly decrease it by requiring free and affordable universal broadband and consumer protections from the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. New York State's Public Service Commission is voting on whether such a merger is in the "public interest." The approval of New York State, home of the nation's top media market, New York City, is essential to the current merger.
Universal broadband has become a mandate at all levels of government, from the president, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. Yet, according to the Knight Foundation, one-third of New York City residents do not have broadband. Like electricity and phones before it, the Internet is an essential utility. Without it, one cannot job search, communicate effectively with loved ones or access the world's knowledge. There is precedence for government and private companies partnering to close service gaps: The Federal Communications Commission offers a lifeline program for phone service to low-income families at 135 percent of the poverty level or lower, or who are on a variety of income-based benefits. It is paid for by telecommunications companies. Cable and Internet providers have become just as much a lifeline to the world as phone service providers and should similarly do their part to achieve the mandate of universal broadband.
Though these and other serious concerns were brought up by elected officials and others at three public hearings of the Commission across the state, Comcast has yet to meaningfully respond.
In 2009, as part of the franchise agreement granting Time Warner Cable a monopoly in New York City, we missed an opportunity to achieve universal broadband. Soon after, as part of its merger with NBC Universal, Comcast rolled out "Internet Essentials" to provide low-cost computers and Internet to children receiving free or reduced school lunches. Unfortunately, according to the Center for Public Integrity of the 7.2 million low-income families in Comcast's service area, only 2.6 million were eligible for "Internet Essentials," and only 300,000 families had enrolled, a troublingly low figure that reflects serious concerns with the program.
As stated in an October 29 letter to the public service commission, signed by 22 state and city elected officials, in order for such a merger to be in the public interest, the Commission must require universal broadband for free to public housing, senior, youth and community centers, improve upon existing affordable broadband programs by pegging programs to top speeds offered and closing loopholes so everyone has access, guarantee customer service, increase transparency, invest in infrastructure, and permanently commit to net neutrality with strong consumer protections and enforcement.
How New York State handles the challenge of the Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger will help set the course for the rest of the nation. The Public Service Commission should only approve the merger if it benefits all New Yorkers by taking meaningful steps to achieve universal broadband in order to bridge our city's digital divide.