The travesty that is Comcast

Heavy pressure will have to be put on the Biden administration to regulate broadband providers

Tech (and wallet) savvy Comcast customers know the drill: After the initial two-year introductory price deal is over and your rate spikes, call up Comcast and threaten to leave unless they knock down the monthly bill some. This maneuver works best in cities like Boston where there is more than one real option for cable and internet service. I just did it myself in early October after a recent move—threatening to bail to RCN unless Comcast lowered the price they were charging me for their Xfinity service.

Shortly after negotiating a modest price break, however, a letter arrived from Xfinity Regional Senior Vice President, Greater Boston Region, Trevor Arp saying, “Due to a recent review of your account, we realized we haven’t been charging you for your SD/HD EQUIPMENT, which is $9.95 per month (plus applicable taxes and fees) and is currently active on your account. Correcting this will increase your bill, and we will be reaching out to you in the next few days so that you can review and approve this new charge.”

So a giant nation-striding cable company—awash in truckloads of cash that it has gotten for decades by rigging the political system to avoid being treated as a public utility among many other sins—“forgot” to charge me for a service?! The parasitic rent-seeking corporation to end all parasitic rent-seeking corporations saw money lying on the proverbial table but failed to grasp it with its sticky claws for months? Please. More like I got a slightly better deal and they had an easy way to push my bill back up at the ready.

Lest we forget that what Comcast is charging for is merely flicking a digital switch in cable boxes built to its own specifications that either allow the (relatively) high-definition TV now native to its system to be purposely hobbled to a lousy standard definition by said cable boxes to anyone who doesn’t pay the fee the company is extorting for the “service” or leave the high definition signal alone.

Given a series of plutocracy-friendly presidential administrations, such behavior should come as no surprise, one supposes. Corrupt pols gonna corrupt, right? But even arch Wall Street puppet President Barack Obama backed his FCC’s decision to regulate broadband services owned by Comcast and other cable and telecom companies under Title II of the federal Telecommunications Act in order to ensure Net Neutrality (the rule under which said companies must enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites).

Unfortunately, an even more pro-plutocrat federal administration under outgoing President Donald Trump appointed telecom industry insider Ajit Pai as his FCC hatchet man to overturn the Obama-era FCC reform that would have eventually resulted in broadband providers being regulated more like other public utilities. Leaving providers like Comcast free to do pretty much whatever they wanted with their broadband offerings.

Following through on full Title II regulation would also have affected broadband providers in other ways—including giving the feds more power to set service rates and do something else that would be super helpful right about now: Stop the imposition of unfair data caps by companies like Comcast.

Which was much in the news this week when American’s most hated cable giant announced that it was imposing a cap on the allowable amount of data that consumers could stream—specifically because more people are streaming more data monthly because they are working from home and also having to send their kids to school online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In other words, the heartless capitalists who run Comcast are literally profiteering on the biggest crisis to hit the United States since the Great Depression. And instead of immediately arresting top Comcast executives for such behavior and seizing control of the company in the public interest, the lame duck Trump administration is looking the other way.

The company is claiming that “95%” of its broadband users won’t see any increase in fees because they aren’t steaming enough data to reach its new 1.2 terabyte monthly usage limit, but that’s just the usual PR smokescreen. The truth is that Comcast, the other cable companies, and telecom companies like Verizon are already permitted to screw American consumers essentially at will—even when some of their services still operate under old regulations (as with Verizon’s old copper wire phone lines being regulated under Title II). So, soon enough more and more people will be slapped with new fees as they are forced to stream more data to meet work demands and ensure their children aren’t more damaged by the pandemic than they already have been by the school closures it has caused.

There is only one moderately fast solution to this latest insult: municipal and county governments, especially in criminally underserved rural areas that still don’t have broadband service they were promised a quarter century ago, need to set up municipal broadband systems. Literally lay their own fiber optic networks to provide gigabit internet service basically at cost to its residents—as Massachusetts towns like Leverett have already done.

The long game, however, will be to pressure the predictably corporate-controlled Biden administration to do the right thing and both fully regulate the cable companies and telecoms as the public utilities they are—and remove the roadblocks that those companies have used their ill-gotten gains to roadblock or ban municipal broadband in over 20 states and rising. In this area of policy, as in so many others, the work of average Americans is cut out for us. So let the protests begin!

Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2020 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.