What the Comcast-NBC Merger Means for the Digital Divide

Yesterday’s announcement that the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice approved the merger to Comcast and NBC-Universal created a large amount of media scrutiny.  Most reports focused on size of the deal, and the merger is indeed a staggering one. The deal joins Comcast’s cable network and TV channels with NBC-Universal’s theme parks, affiliate stations, studios, TV channels, and stake in Hulu.

One of the most interesting aspects of the merger is the host of conditions placed on the combined company.  For example, Comcast must offer its television programming to competing online sites.  Also, Comcast must not “unreasonably” degrade the transmission of online video content from a competitor to Comcast customers.  These restrictions echo the “net neutrality” rules passed by the FCC a few weeks ago in their Open Internet Order.

Some of the conditions of the deal offer benefits that could help those hurt by the digital divide.  Under the section marked “Broadband Adoption and Deployment” the following conditions were specified to be provided to 2.5 million low income households: $10 broadband, $150 computer equipment, and computer training.  Since African Americans are disproportionately represented among low income households, black people could greatly benefit if Comcast adheres to these conditions.

$10 Broadband

The condition states that Comcast must provide “high-speed Internet access service for less than $10 per month”.  This is significantly lower than the $34.99 Comcast charges for it’s introductory high-speed internet service.  This condition provides affordable access to the internet for low income American households.

$150 Computers

Comcast must also offer “personal computers, netbooks, or other computer equipment at a purchase price below $150”.  Since high-speed Internet is useless without a computer, it makes sense for the FCC to impose this condition.  Comcast should provide a bundle which includes a computer, monitor, keyboard, pointing device, ethernet cable, and router so that everything needed to get online is made available to the those who qualify.  The cost of the hardware will probably be subsidized by both Comcast and the federal government.

Computer Training

This condition mandates that Comcast must provide “an array of digital-literacy education opportunities”.  While this is the least specific condition, it presents the most value for low income households.  Lack of computer literacy is far more damaging than lack of access to internet connected computers.

Meeting these conditions will probably be done through the public school system where students from low income households can be identified.  The computer training will be offered at school, and, once completed, students will be given access to the low cost broadband access and reduced price computer hardware.

These conditions, if met, could go a long way toward helping the less fortunate take advantage of the digital revolution.  It remains to be seen how Comcast will implement these stipulations and if those who stand to benefit the most will take advantage of these opportunities.



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