Advocates call on Comcast to boost internet access

City Councilwoman Helen Gym speaks during a 2020 rally outside Comcast headquarters.
Metro file

In the shadow of a hulking skyscraper on John F. Kennedy Boulevard, a group of educators and activists demanded access.

“Comcast has a tower but the people have the power,” they chanted.

The demonstrators want Comcast leadership to do more to deliver internet access to Philadelphia families, especially now that public school students will start the year completely virtual.

Advocates demanded Comcast expand Wi-Fi by opening up residential hotspots, improving speeds on its program for low-income households and offering free service to those that need it while classes are online.

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who’s known for her work advocating for public education, said Comcast is asking the City of Philadelphia to pay $189 per child to get them connected.

“This is not hard,” Gym said at the rally. “When a generation of children’s education relies on the internet, Comcast, you have an obligation to support our children and not to extort our school districts for millions and millions of dollars.”

Comcast said it is in active discussions with the city and district about internet access issues, but the company declined to comment on Gym’s number.

Protesters on Monday afternoon breached the roped-off outdoor concourse of the Comcast Center in an attempt to deliver a stack of letters and petitions to company executives. Police officers blocked them from getting into the building.

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

“Comcast is the digital divide,” said Devren Washington, of the Movement Alliance Project, one of the groups that organized the rally.

Kimberly Callahan, a Comcast customer, said she had to cross her fingers everyday in the spring when her two children, students at George A. McCall School in Society Hill, switched to remote learning.

“Several times a week, my kids would either become disconnected from their virtual classes or not able to sign in at all” due to low internet speeds, she said. “We were not the only family having these issues.”

Callahan said Comcast told her she would have to rewire her house, at a cost of $2,000, to get faster internet.

Speeds for Internet Essentials, the company’s program for low-income families, have improved, Comcast said.

Recently, Internet Essentials was bumped up from 15 megabytes per second to 25, which should allow three people in a household to be on a Zoom call at the same time, according to the company.

The program, which is $9.95 a month, is also free for new customers for the first two months, an offer that will continue until the end of the year, the company said.

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

It’s not enough, according to those at Monday’s protest. They called on Comcast to provide Internet Essentials at no cost until 60 days after schools reopen for in-person instruction.

They argued that the company has not invested enough back into the city and accused its leadership of corporate greed, singling out CEO Brian Roberts.

Roberts and his family donated $5 million to the school district in March to help buy thousands of Chromebooks, which it distributed to students.

Comcast said it cannot open up residential hotspots, which are for those with an account when they are near another customer’s modem, allowing them to connect with their own log-in information.

The hotspots do not have the capacity to handle large amounts of traffic, according to the company.

Angel Nalubega, a teacher at St. James School in North Philadelphia, said Comcast needs to step up and fund better access and improved service because she knows her students have been falling behind.

“I spent so much time with students everyday trying to work with them to deal with internet issues, thinking it’s just technology miscommunication,” Nalubega said.  “No, it’s just that the internet wasn’t working.”