Before voting 'no' on low-cost Internet service, supervisors need to finish fact-finding

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors split 2-2 last week on whether to support an expansion of low-cost Internet service for the poor, leading Supervisor Adam Hill to rhetorically ask: “Are we against the poor?”

That’s a harsh conclusion we aren’t prepared to draw.

We are concerned, though, about a tendency for some board members to say “no” to a potentially beneficial program or policy without bothering to get all the facts.

Last week’s Internet discussion is a strong case in point.

Some background: Comcast is seeking approval of its acquisition of Time-Warner Cable; if that deal goes through, Comcast will take over as cable provider for SLO County, under a territory swap with Charter. For the deal to be approved, however, the Federal Communications Commission must find there will be a public benefit.

Many advocacy groups see this as opportunity for the FCC to require Comcast to expand its Internet Essentials program, which offers Internet service for just $9.95 per month to qualifying low-income families. Low-cost computers and Internet training also are available.

Internet Essentials sounds like an excellent program. There has, however, been less-than-stellar participation, in large part because the program is limited to families with children who qualify for free or reduced lunches.

That leaves out seniors, disabled people, veterans, childless families on limited incomes in short, all manner of people.

That’s a huge concern. More and more, Internet access is becoming essential to conducting everyday business such as applying for jobs, signing up for health care, banking, paying bills, making appointments at the DMV, and, yes, watching Board of Supervisors meetings.

The Internet is especially helpful for people who are homebound because of illness or physical disabilities.

With those thoughts in mind, Supervisor Bruce Gibson asked his colleagues to approve a letter urging the FCC to require Comcast to expand Internet Essentials to all qualifying low-income households, not just those with schoolchildren.

His other recommendations included asking the FCC to set a performance goal, whereby Comcast would reach 45 percent of eligible households in two years; to establish a national oversight committee; and to offer stand-alone Internet service at more reasonable rates to all customers.

Hill joined Gibson in supporting the letter; Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton voted “no”; and Frank Mecham abstained.

Arnold repeatedly voiced concern about how the program would be funded. She speculated that it could be a burden on Comcast shareholders saving for their retirement or on other customers who aren’t receiving the subsidy.

The source of funding for the program is a legitimate question — one we put to Comcast.

Here’s the answer we got from Bryan Byrd, director of communications for Comcast’s California region:

“Customers, cities and counties are not asked to pay for it or contribute money to it in any way. It is part of our community investment program and has its own management team and budget.”

Not a complete answer, but it’s an assurance that general ratepayers aren’t funding the program.

What’s more, Byrd said Comcast representatives are willing to visit San Luis Obispo to talk to the county Board of Supervisors, as well as to school districts and other organizations interested in learning more about its programs.

We’re glad to hear it, and we strongly urge the Board of Supervisors to take Comcast up on the offer.

Internet access is, after all, one of the few issues that affects every resident of San Luis Obispo County, and basing decisions on speculation is not helpful.

We urge the Board of Supervisors to look out for the best interests of all of their constituents, no matter their income level, by getting the facts before making recommendations.