Union Protest at Comcast Friday Over Low-Income Kids Internet Program

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Back in September, Comcast made a deal with the Federal Communications Commission as part of its takeover of NBC and Universal Studios that it would provide low-cost Internet services and a cheaply priced computer to low-income families -- but that hasn't happened in the Houston area, according to union leader Orell Fitzsimmons.

Feeling that Comcast was trying to slip one by the FCC, Fitzsimmons and members of United Labor Unions Local 100 announced today that they will be out at Comcast's facility at 8590 West Tidwell around 4:30 p.m. Friday protesting. They say that it's not enough that Comcast has posted a notice of the program on its Web site -- it needs to do outreach in the schools and actually help some of what it says are 385,000 free lunch children's families that would qualify.

Ray Purser, vice president of government and public relations for Comcast-Houston, said he truly doesn't understand why Fitzsimmons is saying that the cable company hasn't done outreach promoting Internet Essentials, which is designed to provide low-cost access ($9.95 a month and a computer for $150) to low-income kids.

"In June we met with all of the major school districts throughout the entire region to explain the program and to let them know their students would qualify for this if they participated in the school free lunch program," Purser said, adding that most of the districts agreed to order brochures that went home with kids in their school packets. "HISD ordered over 100,000 brochures. Aldine did the same thing."

In addition, Purser said, Comcast purchased ad time on local radio stations, including ones that have a large number of minority listeners. It attended school fairs and passed out material. And there was a launch event with Mayor Annise Parker.

"I'm happy to meet with Local 100 to hear how they think we might improve the program," Purser said.

But in surveying Harris County and the Houston area, Fitzsimmons said: "We still haven't found anyone that's had the program." He's contacted Comcast and says he was told he'll get a written reply in a week. He also filed a request with the FCC asking them to intervene and said its representatives were interested in what he had to say.

Asked how many kids and their families had actually been enrolled in the program, Purser said Comcast wasn't keeping numbers on that.

In response to Hair Balls saying: "Huh, why not?" Purser said: "It's just not a number that we've looked at," adding that for competition reasons, his company might never want to release that number.

He called back to say that Comcast is preparing a progress report that should be out in a couple weeks, but again couldn't promise specific numbers would be released. To qualify: The discounted program is available to all families that have at least one child that qualifies for the national free lunch program, isn't a current Comcast customer and can't be a past Comcast customer with a past-due bill.

Part of a national coalition on this issue, Fitzsimmons said his union protested last week at Comcast's Little Rock facility and plans to do the same in another week in Shreveport.

Fitzsimmons said his group wants to know how many people Comcast has signed up for this program and "where's the evidence" it has. Fitzsimmons said he tried to sign up himself for the program just to see how customer-friendly it was and once he'd requested an application on the Internet, it took another 15 days to get it in his hands. Then he was told he'd need to undergo a credit check. "We don't think it's a good-faith effort on Comcast's part."

But Purser responds that FCC/NBC/Universal deal or no, Comcast has always made an effort to extend Internet access and certainly realizes that the biggest barrier -- at least in Texas -- isn't the technology available but the cost. He said his company has a history of offering free computer classes in the schools.

Fitzsimmons notes that there's a time limit on the Comcast offer, which is "only good for three years." He's afraid too few people will take advantage of it before it is over. Even with that, he said, not everyone can handle even the discounted cost of the computer. "We're trying to get the company to let them pay on their monthly bill like $5 or $10 a month for the computer because a lot of them on minimum wage have a hard time getting $150 together."

"We're going to go out there with some Head Start workers who work with these little kids who need the computers and some HISD employees who work in the kitchen which is the low-paid people, and most of the people have kids in school on the free lunch program and they're going to want to get the Internet for their kids," Fitzsimmons said.

By the way, if you know of anyone who might qualify for the program, but who doesn't have access to the Internet right now, give them this number: 1-855-846-8376. Purser promises Comcast will take care of any questions you have.

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