“It only benefits a few rich companies for us to look at media as a luxury to organize around, as something that is not as important as poverty or police brutality,” says activist Hannah Sassaman. “It only benefits them to pretend that this is a silly issue that only techies really care about. But this has a lot to do with social justice.”
Sassaman is a policy director at the Media Mobilizing Project, a Philadelphia-based group that seeks to connect media policy and action with the fight to end poverty. Recently she and her coworkers have been working to shut down the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, an unprecedented corporate deal that would impact the lives of 75 million American families—six in ten, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Since it was announced in February, the Comcast merger has drawn fire from antitrust scholars, politicians, and even Wall Street. But the people it would impact most—including low-income families, telecom workers, and the 25 million Americans without a web connection—have been largely left out of mainstream discussion.
That is exactly what activists like Sassaman are trying to change. Since February the Media Mobilizing Project has canvassed low-income neighborhoods and Comcast service centers, helped community members write public comments on the merger through the FCC’s website, and prepared them to testify at government hearings on the deal. Together with the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a nationwide coalition of media justice groups, they’ve collected more than 300,000 petition signatures against the merger from activists and consumers across the country—many of them in Philadelphia, which also happens to be Comcast’s hometown.
Grassroots Resistance to the Comcast Merger
“We’re looking at a company that doesn’t have the interests of poor and working people in mind,” says Sassaman. The Media Mobilizing Project, along with the 175 other immigration, labor, and community groups that make up MAG-Net, have done much to highlight Comcast’s radical social agenda, from supporting school privatization in Philadelphia to its close ties with the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council (the guys that brought us Voter ID laws, “Stand Your Ground,” and Arizona’s SB 1070).
But MAG-Net’s biggest concern is how the merger would impact America’s already deeply unequal media system. “Anytime that giant corporations like Comcast or Time Warner are looking to get bigger and more powerful, that inherently will have an impact on local communities’ ability to have a voice,” says Steven Renderos, the group’s national organizer. “It would give Comcast even more power to set prices, to push their agenda in Congress, and to decide who gets to be online and who doesn’t,” adds Sassaman.
That last point forms a huge part of MAG-Net’s opposition to the merger. As part of the proposed plan, Comcast would be required to divest nearly 4 million current subscribers, most of them in Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and other parts of the Midwest. In return the company would gain valuable rights to rapidly growing markets in New York City and Los Angeles. “Merging would mean communities that need affordable, reliable Internet may no longer have it,” says Sassaman. (Many subscribers will be offered service through a new independent company called GreatLand Connections, but the new provider would not be obligated to provide the discount broadband service those communities have depended on until now.)
Losing service would be particularly bad news for cities like Detroit that already suffer from a lack of affordable web access. According to the American Community Survey, only 46 percent of Detroit households have a broadband connection, making it one of the least connected cities in the country. Yet as activists like Sassaman point out, the situation in Comcast’s hometown of Philadelphia isn’t much better. Charles Kaylor of Temple University estimates that as many as 55 percent of Philly residents lack a household web connection. And Philadelphia’s problem is compounded by a serious lack of access at the city’s libraries, which average 6.1 computers per 10,000 residents. By contrast, wealthier cities like Seattle average 17.1 computers. Detroit hovers closer to Philly at 8.5. “If you’re poor or working class, you can essentially be priced out of an Internet connection,” says Renderos.
Lack of Internet Access and Poverty: A Vicious Cycle
What all this means for low-income communities caught in the Comcast orbit is a hard-to-break cycle of disconnection and poverty. Nationwide, broadband access at home makes high school students up to 8 percent more likely to graduate, and a web connection has never been more essential for jobseekers: more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies post job openings only on the Internet, according to Federal Communications Commission data. In Philly, the digital divide is particularly stark. According to a recent report by IBM and the City of Philadelphia, more than 600,000 Philly residents will lack a basic level of digital literacy by 2030, making it much harder to secure gainful employment and escape poverty. “We’re treating a lifeline to the American economy and a lifeline for communities that need to organize as if it was just about profit,” says Sassaman, “rather than as the essential human right that it is.”
Now, Comcast did introduce a program three years ago, called Internet Essentials, designed to meet the digital needs of low-income users. The program offers basic web service at $10 a month and requires that households signing up have a child who qualifies for free or reduced lunch at school—a qualification met by 2.6 million people across the country. But to this day, the number of people signed up for Internet Essentials is only 300,000—just 12 percent of eligible users nationwide; in Philadelphia the figure is closer to 9 percent. Users have complained that getting approved for service is difficult: applicants must have no overdue bills, cannot be current Comcast subscribers (though they can unsubscribe for 90 days and then reapply), and need an active web connection to complete the application.
It’s also pretty paltry service. At 5 megabits per second it’s a far cry from the national average of 31.8 megabits per second. A download rate of 5 megabits per second puts low-income Comcast subscribers on par with users in Haiti and Uganda. If its merger is approved, Comcast has promised to expand Internet Essentials into all Time Warner service areas, a move Sassaman says will do little to bridge the digital divide in America’s low-income communities.
The Struggle for Participatory Media
Economic opportunity is not the only issue at stake in the struggle against the Comcast merger—it’s also about a right to communicate. “What’s really important is understanding that these technologies mediate our freedom, our privacy, and our connections with one another,” Sassman says. “It’s about sharing our stories but also listening to other people’s stories and to see that the root causes of our problems and other people’s problems are not different. They’re the same.”
It’s that vision of participatory media that lies at the core of the Media Action Grassroots Network’s work. “Really what’s guided a lot of our thinking around media justice is deeply grounded in human rights principles,” says Renderos. “Our ability to communicate is not just about getting our stories out there. It’s also about being able to control and shape the world around us, to shape our representation, and to shape how our communities are reflected in the broader media system.”
For Renderos, the recent pushback against police brutality is a dramatic illustration of what that kind of power can mean. The ability of activists in Ferguson, Staten Island, and dozens of other communities to organize online has been critical to the potency and reach of messages like #BlackLivesMatter. Instead of trying to channel critical voices through the corporate media system, an open, neutral web allows community members to be both producers and consumers of their own messages. It’s this kind of access that makes the web so central to MAG-Net’s vision of a more empowering media system that can reach beyond economic and racial barriers. “The Internet is probably the most transformative media platform that we have,” says Renderos.
Yet MAG-Net’s vision of media justice is not just about the Internet. In recent years MAG-Net has pushed for reducing long-distance rates for prisoners calling their families, worked to build digital literacy in low-income communities, and expanded the reach of community radio. “For us it’s like, what’s the potential of that community-based media infrastructure to preserve and shape the local community?” he says. “If we’re not able to have the big antennas that the CNNs or the MSNBCs of the world have, how do we create the echo chamber through locally owned media?”
Like Renderos, Sassaman takes a long view. “We’re deeply engaged in this campaign to try to block the merger but what’s really valuable is the increasing literacy and building a shared understanding of unity. It’s not just about the fight that we wage today but about the fight that we’ll wage in a generation,” she says.
For now, the Comcast merger appears to be in limbo. In late October the FCC pressed the pause button on its review of the deal, casting its approval into serious doubt for the first time. It also gave groups like the Media Action Grassroots Network extra time to engage with communities that would be most impacted. What’s most critical now, says Renderos, is getting conversations about where our media system is headed out of D.C. and into the communities that will be most impacted.