On Monday, August 3rd, volunteers from the Philadelphia Liberation Center gathered alongside Philadelphia’s educators, paraprofessionals, students, parents, and activists outside of the $540 million Comcast Center to demand the greedy corporation provide free Internet to all Philadelphia students and school-staff as the School District of Philadelphia reluctantly made the decision to begin the upcoming school-year virtually. The district board initially announced the return to school buildings despite the Coronavirus pandemic continuing to ravage the city; however, with pressure from educators and advocates of safe school reopenings the decision was reversed.
Despite expropriating $36 million in 2019 alone, CEO of Comcast Brian Roberts denied the Philadelphia School Board’s request for Internet access for their scholars. The irony of an Internet provider worth $200+ billion locating its headquarters in a city where over 21,500 children do not have access to the Internet is a stark to say the least.
Angel Nalubega, educator and member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, demanded Comcast redirect the money they donate to the Philadelphia Police to students in the city. “Instead of funding the Philadelphia Police Foundation that brutalizes our communities, Comcast should do its part to open up Wi-Fi hotspots and provide free equitable Internet access to all students. Our neighborhoods, our city, does not need anymore money going to police.”
Among the crowd stood members of progressive organizations such as the Caucus of Working Educators, Teacher Action Group, Pennsylvania Working Families, Girls Rock Philly, Reclaim Philadelphia, and Movement Alliance Project as well as Councilmember Helen Gym. Various educators raised concerns over the unreliable ‘Internet Essentials’ plan offered by Comcast for $9.95/month. Although Comcast pat itself on the back for providing affordable Internet to low-income families, the reality is that Internet through this plan is dismal. In the spring, many students experienced frequent connection losses and call drops, resulting in missing entire virtual lessons. When the achievement gap between affluent students versus poor students is already so extensive, unreliable or lack of Internet cannot be another burden for these families.
Kimberly Callahan, a parent of two School District of Philadelphia students, recalls crossing her fingers everyday hoping her children would be able to connect to virtual classes. “Several times a week my kids children would either become disconnected from their virtual classes or not able to sign in at all.” When she confronted Comcast, they demanded $2,000 to rewire her home for better connection.
After a rally with a number of powerful speeches and energizing music by MadBeatzPhilly, a portion of the crowd headed towards the 58-story skyscraper to deliver thousands of signed petitions with their demands. However, when they approached the doors, they were blocked by police. Roughly five police officers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, blocking the entrance to the building with their bicycles. This aggressive show of force is just another testament of law enforcement protecting private property over people.
For a while the crowd staged a sit-in in front of the Comcast headquarters in opposition to the police, but eventually decided to march around the building instead. Protesters took to the streets chanting, “Comcast has the tower but the people have the power!” attracting support from passersby and drivers. Educators, students, parents, and community members all know that the upcoming school-year will show devastating digital disparities among students due to the capitalist class’s negligence. In a socialist system, basic human rights like Internet would be guaranteed to all people and Internet providers would be operated under the power of its workers.
Three days after the action, Comcast released the #PHLConnectED program in partnership with the city government, the School District of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Housing Authority, select charter schools, and various foundations. The district plans to select eligible families, starting with households without Internet access or those who are housing insecure, and provide them with free Internet for up to 2 years. The program allegedly will connect up to 35,000 K-12 school student households, with “Internet Essentials” or mobile hotspots. Despite this slight victory for families and students, it is still not enough. The Internet Essentials’ speeds are not nearly fast enough to provide reliable connection during virtual learning. In order to provide the basis of digital equity, Comcast must provide reliable Internet speeds to all households.
The Philadelphia Liberation Center believes that Internet is a human right and therefore Internet providers like Comcast have the duty to provide free and reliable Internet to the city’s students and educators. The Internet is essential!