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

By now, you’ve probably heard of Khan Academy — hell, it got a 14-minute profile on 60 Minutes a while back (embedded above). It’s an online education community that strives to create a new model for how people are educated around the world. It’s gotten a lot of buzz and, while it has detractors, it’s considered a pretty interesting gambit in the broader scheme of how to approach the acquisition of new knowledge. Here’s a sample video, for example.

So, Khan Academy is a non-profit. That invariably puts restrictions on its reach and its ability to gain more reach through money. So back in December, they went into a partnership with Comcast (a company you’ve also probably heard of), which would essentially serve two purposes: for Khan Academy, they’d get money and Comcast’s reach; Comcast would get connection to a new constituency (namely, lower-income families). Here’s what Comcast’s EVP said when the partnership was announced:

So the marriage is perfect – Khan Academy content will help drive broadband adoption; the increased adoption will help get Khan Academy content where it can do incredible good. This partnership will raise awareness to ensure low-income families can take advantage of the symbiotic relationship between the two programs.

Subsequently, here’s how Fast Company broke it down:

Comcast is currently locked in a battle for dominance with Internet streaming video services. Their partnerships with companies like Twitter are enhancing their perceived relevance. Associating with Khan Academy, a darling of TED, Bill Gates, and the Google guys, can only enhance Comcast’s Silicon Valley cred, as well as burnish its reputation for corporate social responsibility.

Seems like a fairly mutually beneficial thing, no? Only it might not be working that way.

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.

Comcast may be in this partnership for the wrong reasons, but … you can’t completely fault them. The goal of a company is to make money, and making money is easier with a larger user base. That’s a pretty basic equation (it has flaws but it’s pretty basic at the same time). Comcast’s CEO and EVP don’t have any particular reason to care about low-income families accessing the Internet, per se; their job is to make their stock price more attractive to others. Their families aren’t low-income and probably have fairly fast Internet connection speeds wherever they may live. That all seems fairly basic.

The bigger issue is that about 100 million Americans (1/3) don’t have access to high-speed Internet, and about 19 million Americans can’t sign up for any Internet at all. This obviously poses a fairly significant challenge on the education side, because whether you believe Khan Academy is a good idea or not, it seems logical that a lot of jobs in the future might involve computing at some level. You could argue that there will always be McDonald’s jobs, and that’s probably true, but in 30 years, couldn’t you see McDonald’s operating on some type of “smart” system in terms of using algorithms to time out the fries and burgers and flow of the drive-through? That could easily happen. If it’s cost-effective and adopted, that further changes the game on what students need to know and focus on throughout K-12. And if they’re in an area without broadband, well, that’s going to be harder. The broadband issue in America is a big one. It’s even bigger when viewed through the prism of just education.

I think this about the idea of food deserts and things too — if a company like Yum! Brands or, yes, McDonald’s is making billions off the inner city eating poorly, it kind of feels like their responsibility to create programs that teach people in lower-income areas about shopping better, cooking better, and eating better. It’s honestly not that hard. It is more expensive to eat healthier, yes, but the difference between eating poorly and eating well can sometimes be as low as $1.10 per day. 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.

I guess the TL:DR for this post would be: Money can fix things, so we need the people with money to want to fix the things that need fixing, and in the right way.

Ted Bauer