Last updated on March 3, 2021
I open my laptop and there goes the black screen of my first period class. A seemingly endless connecting circle appears in the middle, a reminder of the constantly lagging WiFi of Baltimore city. I refresh, and now I’m stuck in the waiting room. Black screen. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. This is merely the daily routine for thousands of students across Baltimore City attempting to connect to their online classes, yearning to learn but stuck with the barriers of poor WiFi connectivity.
The United Nations has reported that the internet is a basic human right. Yet, the Abell Foundation reported that, in Baltimore alone, we see 40.7% of all households have no broadband (at-home) internet. In a city like Baltimore, where the school system is majority Black and Brown, we are talking about 1 out of every 2 Black and Latinx students not being able to access their education. With a virtual start to the 2020-21 school year, how are students supposed to successfully connect online if they don’t even have the necessary tools to do so?
Cities and schools, parents and teachers, have been left to fend for themselves due to the failed leadership of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast. Forcing community members to fill in the gap and step to the forefront to find solutions to internalized systemic issues like the digital divide. That’s exactly what student leaders of SOMOS (Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society), a student-led advocacy organization, did.
On April 2020, the public testimony of two student leaders of SOMOS, Yashira Valenzuela (‘21) and Kimberly Vasquez (‘21), resulted in approval of City Hall and Mayor Young to move 3 million dollars from the Baltimore Children and Youth fund to BCPSS to provide internet access and devices to students in the city.
In May 2020, SOMOS directed a letter of demands to Comcast concerning their Xfinity hotspots and Internet Essentials package, a monthly 9.99 dollar plan for low income residents. These demands have the support of over 100 organizations including the Baltimore Teachers Union, the Baltimore City Council and over 1,500 individuals from their petition. They are as follows:
- To permanently increase Internet Essentials’ upload speeds from 3Mbps to 25Mbps and download speeds from 25Mbps to 100Mbps.
- Make Internet Essentials free from the time of enrollment until 60 days after the full restoration of school.
- To open up all Xfinity hotspots, including those from leased (residential) Comcast modems, and for it to be free to the public until 60 days after the full restoration of school.
Comcast is the main ISP of Baltimore due to a franchize between Baltimore City and Comcast, that will last until 2026. Sam Musgrave, Head of Operations at non-profit ISP Project Waves, explains Comcast’s role as franchasize, she goes to say “Comcast rents (leases) the infrastructure (fiber) required to provide internet service to residents. They pay a fee to the city in exchange for this ‘first right of refusal’ to the fiber conduit, which Baltimore City owns.”
She then concludes with the two main problems, “it allows Comcast to prevent other providers from using the infrastructure, and it allows them to control prices and service quality.” Comcast repeatedly refuses to be the monopoly in Baltimore, but Franca Muller Paz, teacher at City, SOMOS advisor and Baltimore City Council candidate in District 12, says that despite multiple requests for information from Comcast to support their claim they haven’t provided any. She concludes that the reason for this behavior is because the numbers are “so high that any rational person would see that Comcast does indeed have a near monopoly in our city.”
Comcast denied all of SOMOS’ demands and gave no plan of their own to connect residents to high-speed internet. They claim that their Internet Essentials package is “high-speed,” and can sustain “3 zoom calls and 4 skype calls.” Yet Yashira Valenzuela (‘21) says throughout the city, “families aren’t even being provided with internet and even if they are subscribers to Comcast’s Internet Essentials, the speeds are insufficient and inadequate to get students online simultaneously.” As a result, students are being systematically denied to exercise their constitutional right to an education simply because they aren’t getting the internet they need to stay online.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Comcast increased their internet speeds to the bare minimum to qualify FCC’s report in 2015 of “Broadband high speed internet,” making them five years late. In an article in Maryland Matters, Kristie Fox, Comcast’s Executive of Corporate Communications, stated “Solving a problem as vast and complex as the digital divide requires collaboration across the City – with the school district, elected officials, nonprofit community partners, and other private-sector companies – so everyone is part of the solution.”
Franca Muller Paz questions “where has Comcast been in those five years [to increase their internet speeds] and why did it take a global pandemic to give people the speeds that they deserve?” Clearly five years and the fact that everything has moved to being fully virtual, would increase this number.
The concern of Digital Redlining comes to play as Councilman Zeke Cohen, says at the SOMOS-led National Press Conference, “if you look at the maps of who was denied home loans in the 1930s in Baltimore because of the color of their skin, they are disturbingly similar to those who have been denied home internet access today.” We see the internet being inequitably distributed across lines of race and class in our city.
SOMOS has recently been working on a national push calling on Comcast to meet SOMOS’ 3 original demands (mentioned above), for the FCC to take action by updating broadband speeds and expanding programs like e-rate and Lifeline that would help get students and families connected right now. In addition, they demand Congress to act and pass the HEROES ACT so that more families can afford quality internet. Keep up with their efforts and join their fight amongst other cities and towns to stop Comcast from profiting from Black and Brown children behind the digital divide by visiting their collective website: internetisessential.org.
SOMOS students & advocates outside Baltimore City Hall after their first
Press Conference on May 26, 2020. Photo Credit: Sam Musgrave