Reading & Reacting: Did Comcast partner with Khan Academy just to get new, low-income customers — and then drop the ball? (Perhaps.)

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by jon mannion

By Ted Bauer @ The Context of Things blog

This recent blogpost highlights some of the many potentially problematic aspects of for-profit corporate interests pairing with educational efforts. It is definitely worth reading with quality source links and embedded videos. The players are Khan Academy and Comcast. While Khan Academy is also a company and not a school, albeit a non-profit, their primary aim is an educational one. Comcast is a communication delivery and content company, among other core businesses.

Yet, here is an example of a corporation that exists to generate profit, partnering with an educational effort, ultimately to expand its pool of customers. If people, again more appropriately labeled customers rather than learners, benefit great, but the basic game is that Comcast increases their customer base, as well as extending their dominance in the marketplace, while possibly gaining some positive PR along the way. In some ways, it is a marketing play for both enterprises.

Here’s the basics: Comcast is using the program to promote a program of its own called Internet Essentials, which basically offers high-speed broadband to low-income families for $9.95/month, along with vouchers for discounted computers. OK. The important thing to know there, though, is that this program isn’t something Comcast did out of the goodness of their heart — rather, the FCC forces cable giants to provide low-cost options to underserved communities. It’s a regulatory requirement. The Internet Essentials program, then, has critics – who speak frequently to the idea that the supposed “high-speed” broadband isn’t high-speed at all. It’s actually about 5 Mbps, which is slower than the most basic package Comcast offers in a lot of U.S. cities. And the other program? You can only get Internet Essentials at the $9.95 rate if your child is in the National School Lunch program (often just referred to as “free or reduced lunch”). If your child drops out of that program for any reason, your Internet bill would shoot up to what anyone pays — probably $50-$70 a month if you didn’t add cable.

In sum, this may be a customer acquisition program in disguise — Comcast gets a new base of customers, then bait-and-switches them into higher prices down the road. Problem for Comcast is, millions of people are theoretically eligible for this program and yet … only about 250K have signed up.

Whether or not Comcast is looking to run a bait-and-switch may or may not come to pass. However, there is no question that higher prices will be in the future of all those customers caught up in their nets. Higher prices over time is a given. Anyone that pays Comcast for services can undoubtedly express with great exasperation how their bill has slowly escalated with increased services and features that are added without request or recourse, other than canceling the services.

Maybe most interesting of all is Bauer’s assertion about potential solutions, although I am not convinced that what he is proposing will happen.

We can fix these problems if the people benefiting the most from the problems directed some — not all by any means — of their resources back to the problems, and did so without an ulterior motive. That’s what it seems like Comcast did here. They have money and could have put some of it towards promoting and marketing the package and locking in the package at $9.95 regardless of the lunch criteria. Instead, no.

First, Comcast benefits from the problem. Of course, they want to expand their customer base. However, they are less interested in making infrastructure investments in areas where the customers are less able to pay their desired prices. It is not good for their bottom line to spend more money than they have to especially where there is less likely to be significant returns, as in poor families.

Second, as bad as it sounds, bait-and-switch strategies are the kinds of near-term tactics that can boost quarterly accounting results, further contributing to ever more economic nearsightedness. Students, in this case Kahn’s learners, are not the primary concern and may very well be afterthoughts, in fact. Moreover, for-profit imperatives seek scale and efficiency, which do not necessarily correlate with how anyone learns. Yet these are the the forces that many would like to invite into public education.

It should be no surprise that any company would be interested in solving any problems from which they benefit. In fact, there is every reason to believe that they will perpetuate them as long as possible.

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