Baltimore City students joined peers in Philadelphia, Detroit and Baton Rouge to call on Comcast to close the digital divide by providing free internet access for all students. The company’s Internet Essentials program isn’t fast or cheap enough to allow all students to learn remotely online, they said at a Wednesday news conference.
Kimberly Vasquez, a senior at Baltimore City College High School, said her school year hasn’t been marked with the usual milestones but by internet connections that lag and drop, especially when multiple people in the same household are online.
“My sisters and I shouldn't have to choose who's going to sacrifice their education and fall behind for one of us to succeed,” Vasquez said. “We are having to decide whose education is more important.”
And as parents work from home and encounter slow internet, they have to decide whether their job that brings food to the table is more important than their children's education, she said.
Comcast has a franchise agreement with Baltimore. As it stands now, the company’s Internet Essentials program gives 60 days of free WiFi to participants, who can enroll through December. Comcast waived the usual requirement of no past due balance in order to apply to the program in the spring and also boosted its speeds from 15/2 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps.
Franca Muller Paz, a teacher at City College and a Green Party politician who is running for City Council in Baltimore’s 12th district, said the increased speeds are not enough. Many of her students’ internet connections still are not strong enough for them to speak up in class, she said.
“Inadequate internet access, slow speeds and high costs stand in the way of a child's right to an education,” Muller Paz said.
That’s especially dire in a city as segregated as Baltimore, said councilman and former Baltimore City Public Schools teacher Zeke Cohen.
“If you look at the maps of who was denied home loans in the 1930s in Baltimore because of the color of their skin, they are disturbingly similar to who has been denied home Internet access today,” Cohen said.
The Democrat said both Comcast and the Federal Communications Commission must provide fast, free internet access for students throughout the pandemic.