AMERICA'S LARGEST internet service provider (ISP) Comcast is on a charm offensive, having announced an indefinite extension to its subsidised internet scheme for low income families.
The company, which has taken a lot of criticism recently, in part for its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable that is due for review by US regulatory agencies, but also over its recent announcement of a deal for direct connections between streaming service Netflix servers and its nationwide broadband network.
While the Netflix deal stops short of actually breaking net neutrality rules following rival Verizon's landmark appeal victory, it does demonstrate a worrying level of ISP control over internet traffic. It is something like having a water utility route a direct pipe into a particular reservoir because the owners paid it to do so, regardless of whether the water is pure enough, and then charge for the water service.
Today Comcast announced that it will continue to offer low income American families with children low cost internet access - along with the temptation, of course, that they might as well sign up for cable TV service at the same time.
The criterion for Comcast's offer is whether the families' children are entitled to free school meals. Around 1.2 million families have joined the scheme already and Comcast estimates that 2.6 million qualifying families live within its catchment areas.
Low income families can get internet access for $9.95 a month, or less than £6, along with opportunities to access learning materials and buy reconditioned, internet ready computers for $150, similar to the programme in the UK set up by Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, before she stepped down from her role as government digital champion last November.
Thus Comcast's social concience is clear, and of course it can be applauded for this, but the fact remains that the company holds a lot of power over internet service in many US cities.
It also owns the TV broadcasting network NBC and Universal Pictures, to name but two media giants based in the US. Media regulation is one thing, but Comcast keeps getting larger, and as the net neutrality issue shows, such a huge company can exercise great influence over what the children it helps to gain online access see on their computer and TV screens.
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should take this into consideration when it assesses the competition concerns raised by its proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable, which will extend its reach to large audiences served by the company in 29 states.
However some analysts believe that this proposed merger could be the best thing that could have happened, as the FCC might take the opportunity to insist that the resulting company must abide by strict net neutrality rules if it lets the merger deal go through.
As the US government continues to scramble around trying to rescue enforcement of net neutrality through bipartisan legislation, we are left to wonder what kind of spin the little girls and boys that Comcast is helping will see on the internet, should the US abandon net neutrality. µ
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