At first glance, it looks positive: Comcast and Khan Academy are looking for ways to help bridge the digital and educational divide.

In December, the cable giant and the non-profit educational website announced a multi-million dollar partnership that they say could help narrow the gap between Americans who have access to technology and online educational materials and those that lack it. Over the next three years, Comcast will give Khan Academy a large donation and pay for thousands of public service announcements promoting its free online educational videos and services. And it will use the partnership to promote Internet Essentials, Comcast’s three-year-old program that offers low-income families broadband service for $9.95 a month along with vouchers for discounted computers.

But before you get excited, it’s worth considering the motives and potential impact of this agreement: The partnership raises questions about whether “discount” programs like Internet Essentials actually address the digital divide issue, and concerns about how Internet service providers might someday be able to pick favorites in the digital education market.

First, the motives. For Khan Academy, the equation is simple: Comcast is offering money and publicity, both of which could help the website expand its reach. But Comcast also stands to benefit significantly from the relationship. Judging by its previous activities (we’ll address those later), it looks like one short-term goal of the cable giant is to lure new customers from a large constituency that currently does not subscribe to home broadband service—low-income families—with the promise of free educational tools.

The partnership raises questions about whether “discount” programs like Internet Essentials actually address the digital divide issue.

But those low-income families may not really benefit in the long term. Here, it’s important to understand that the Internet Essentials program wasn’t started as a charity—it satisfies a regulatory requirement imposed on Comcast by the Federal Communications Commission to provide Internet service to underserved communities. Yet, the program has been criticized for a number of reasons, including sluggish speeds. (Currently, Internet Essentials customers may get speeds of up to 5 Mbps, which isn’t even as fast as Comcast’s most basic package in the Washington DC area. Whether or not those speeds are sufficient for streaming media-rich online educational content is also questionable.) What’s more, families are only able to get the discount while their kids are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, meaning that eventually they’ll be forced to subscribe to a package that costs nearly five times as much for slightly faster speeds if they choose to continue service after their NSLP eligibility ends.

Internet Essentials is not all bad, but it’s definitely more of a feel-good strategy that allows Comcast to bait-and-switch new customers with discounted offerings. It’s certainly not a long-term solution to America’s broadband challenges. And at the moment, despite the fact that millions of American households are eligible for Internet Essentials, only about 250,000 have signed up for the program. So the promise of Khan Academy’s educational tools could be just the thing to motivate more families to participate–or at least, that’s what Comcast’s David L. Cohen seems to think. “Parents can justify the cost of broadband access with this type of content,” he told Forbes after the partnership announcement. Critics, on the other hand, have called Internet essentials a “customer acquisition program in disguise.” And researchers have pointed out that meaningful broadband adoption requires much more than simply increasing the number of home broadband subscriptions, especially to a subpar service like Internet Essentials.

Internet Essentials is not all bad, but it’s definitely more of a feel-good strategy that allows Comcast to bait-and-switch new customers with discounted offerings.

Of course, we can’t fault the company for trying to make money and expand its customer base. But there is a longer-term set of concerns that could result from this partnership. Currently, the Comcast-Khan Academy arrangement is a non-exclusive deal – meaning that both companies can pursue other mutually beneficial partnerships as well. But it raises an important question about the future of the open Internet: In the next few years, could we see other Internet service providers and online education companies that require high-speed connections pair up or offer one another preferential treatment? These kinds of arrangements could give ISPs the ability to pick the winners and losers in the online educational market, rather than allowing users to freely choose which content they access. Hypothetically, Comcast could offer Khan Academy users faster access than Coursera users, for example. When one company gains an advantage like that, it makes it all the more difficult for others—especially new, innovative entrants to the market—to successfully compete.

We’ve already seen how corporate policies can shape online behavior (or at least attempt to). Comcast exempts its own XFINITY TV on demand service through the Xbox 360 from its monthly data cap, meaning that when a customer watches Comcast’s streaming video content it doesn’t count toward the usage limit (whereas streaming traffic from Netflix, for example, would eat away at it quickly). And the cable giant has faced allegations over whether it is violating network neutrality rules—which prevent ISPs from discriminating against or blocking certain content online—by prioritizing certain traffic on its network. So it’s reasonable to be skeptical of Comcast’s behavior in this instance as well.

The Comcast-Khan Academy partnership certainly has potential, but a little healthy scrutiny is also in order. And hopefully providers like Comcast will take steps to ensure that the proliferation of free online educational resources is accompanied by faster and more affordable broadband service for all US consumers—not just the expansion of limited programs like Internet Essentials.

About the Author

Danielle Kehl
Danielle Kehl is a policy analyst in the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation where she works on technology policy and how it intersects with broader domestic and foreign policy concerns. Her main areas of focus are U.S. broadband policy and Internet freedom. Her writing has been published in a number of outlets, including the Journal of Information Policy, Slate, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.