A parent and advocate has filed a complaint with the Oregon Department of Justice against the cable company Comcast for the internet service being provided to low-income students in partnership with Portland Public Schools.
The complaint, filed with the DOJ's Consumer Complaints Division by Linda Nezbeda, alleges the company is advertising a Comcast Internet Essentials program that doesn't provide adequate data speeds for online instruction, particularly for families with more than one child.
"Comcast is aware that the internet essential program will not meet the demand of online schooling, especially if there are multiple individuals in that household," wrote Nezbeda in her Aug. 4 complaint. "They are also aware of the high likelihood that families will go over the data cap. In each instance, it creates an opportunity to sell new plans to new customers while using vulnerable children/families during challenging times. And in cases where families couldn't afford it, completely removes their children from online learning as they lost their internet."
A Comcast spokesperson tells WW the complaint is without merit.
"I can tell you the complaint is replete with inaccuracies about the Internet Essentials program," says Amy Keiter, spokesperson for Comcast Oregon/SW Washington. Keiter did not immediately provide specifics.
The concern about inadequate internet service is significant in part because it points to broader concerns about the digital divide—the gap between families who have computer and internet service at home and those who do not. If low-income children don't have internet service, they will be unable to learn this fall as school resumes without in-person classes.
Portland Public Schools worked to address that concern by distributing laptops to students that needed them, along with providing internet service—including through Comcast.
The plan offers data speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream and the first 60 days free. Portland Public Schools' Fund for PPS is paying for the service for some families.
PPS confirmed to WW that it had at least 87 households enrolled in the program, but it also said it expects the full number is higher—around "several hundred households." The district will not be able to confirm the number until the next bill arrives.
PPS says some families have complained about bandwidth.
"In the spring, a few families did reach out to express concerns about bandwidth usage," says PPS spokeswoman Karen Werstein. "This issue was due to the number of family members online at the same time. To quickly mitigate this concern, PPS made available mobile hot spots to families with these issues so students could continue their distance learning."
The district says it will keep offering the service but create backups.
"As we look to the fall, the Fund for PPS will continue to partner with Comcast to provide access to Comcast Internet Essentials as one option for families needing access to internet connectivity for the district's comprehensive distance learning modules," Werstein adds. "In addition, PPS will be making mobile hot spots available for those families who need that option."
The program is being promoted to other school districts, including Beaverton, where teachers have expressed concern about the Comcast plan.
"When I've talked to teachers about the Comcast deal, folks are really grateful to the efforts that have been put in to get internet connectivity to families," says Sara Schmitt, president of the Beaverton Education Association. "It's really disruptive to learning if they don't have high enough speed [service]."