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Residents Rally to Expand Free Internet for Virtual Learning

Teachers, students, parents and allies rallied outside the Comcast regional headquarters in South Baltimore on Monday afternoon, calling on the company to improve the quality of its Internet services.

by Daniel Oyefusi, The Baltimore Sun / August 4, 2020

(TNS) — Teachers, students, parents and allies rallied outside the Comcast regional headquarters in South Baltimore on Monday afternoon, calling on the company to improve the quality of its Internet services and offer it for free to students and educators as many prepare for another semester of virtual learning.

Members of the Baltimore Teachers Union and the Prince George’s County Educators Association staged the car and bike rally, filling the building parking lot and surrounding area. Several dozen vehicles — including a yellow school bus — and additional bikes made their way to the headquarters from Camden Yards. Messages urging Comcast to acquiesce to the demands were taped to vehicles.

Similar demonstrations took place in Philadelphia and other cities as part of the National Day of Resistance.

As Tropical Storm Isaias approached, the group stood outside the building with ponchos and umbrellas as rain poured down and speakers addressed the crowd.

“Our students need broadband access in order to do distant learning that is meaningful,” said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators Association. “Our educators need access to broadband Internet as well so that they can conduct distance learning and provide our students with the opportunities that they deserve. The school systems are not prepared to pay for broadband access for all of our educators.

“Comcast is making a killing on everybody being home during COVID. They can make resources happen,” Dudley said.

As the coronavirus pandemic closed school districts and forced students to finish the year from home in the spring, Comcast offered 60 days of free Internet service to new, low-income households as part of its Internet Essentials program. The company in June extended the program through the rest of the year and expanded eligibility to include all low-income households. The company also waived a requirement that excluded customers with a balance from qualifying for the offer.

In addition to its Internet Essentials programs, Comcast extended public access to all its hotspots for the remainder of the year. But teachers said it’s not enough.

Dudley, a middle school social studies teacher, pointed out that many teachers make just enough money not to qualify for the Internet Essentials program and can’t afford to pay for broadband access. She added that one hotspot won’t be enough for households with multiple students.

Comcast charges $9.95 a month for the Internet Essentials program, which includes in-home Wi-Fi and download speeds of 25 Mbps. According to a report, Comcast Cable added 323,000 Internet customers in the second quarter of the year, its largest increase in this period in 13 years. Over 600,000 additional customers are receiving Internet service as part of its Covid-19 Keep Americans Connected pledge.

A list of demands from the group includes an increase in upload and download speeds, offering the program free for educators and students until 60 days after the full restoration of in-person classes, and offering all Xfinity hotspots for free 60 days after the full restoration of schools.

A Comcast spokesperson declined to comment Monday.

Several Maryland school districts plan to open the school year virtually. Baltimore City Public Schools announced in July it purchased 10,000 Wi-Fi hot spots for students and schools CEO Sonja Santelises told parents the system was working to equip every student with a device to bridge the technology gap that plagued so many in the spring.

“They gave us crumbs,” Diamonté Brown, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said of Comcast. “They gave us the high-speed essential package that is absolutely insufficient for meeting the demands of our students and our educators.”

©2020 The Baltimore Sun, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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