Philly and Seattle Setting New Franchise Standards for Comcast

Comcast Logo-background 400x300_19Pittsburgh Philadelphia and Seattle City Councils, along with the community-based pressure pushing them, are proving that there is still a lot of leverage and some bite past the bark in using cable franchise renewal agreements to wrest concessions from the arrogant, monopolistic Comcast. We have been tussling with Comcast for years now over their half-hearted efforts to comply with the FCC order that they provide affordable internet access to lower income families as a requirement of their purchase of Universal Studios. At the ACORN Canada Year End/Year Begin staff meeting, we met with Craig Robbins, Executive Director of Action United and one of the first questions raised as we shared updates on Canada’s Internet For All Campaign was, “What’s up with Comcast?” The news from Philly’s yearlong franchise renewal fight for Comcast to provide cable service was encouraging.

The Consumerist in Philly and the Philadelphia Magazine lay out the improvements broadly:

…the city will get the maximum franchise fee of 5% of all the gross revenues from Comcast’s cable service, which right now is more than $17 million annually. Comcast will also increase funding for public, educational, and government access programs as well as upgrade the technology in over 200 city buildings at no cost. Comcast is also being required to provide education to high school seniors, provide some graduates with jobs, and meet Philadelphia’s living wage and prevailing wage rules. And last but not least, the city is requiring that Comcast drop one of the most onerous requirements for low-income families to enrolling in the Internet Essentials program, and will be included on the pilot program to expand eligibility to senior citizens — as well as any other pilot program that Comcast conducts with Internet Essentials in the future.

The Internet Essentials program is the euphemistic compliance effort for lower income families which Comcast has tried to do on the skinny with a maze of disqualifying rules while passing off any outreach to beleaguered public school districts. Craig told us one of the changes involved dropping the bar for joining the program if a family had had service with Comcast within 90 days. Yes, you get it, Comcast didn’t want a lower income family to escape an unaffordable package to benefit from Essentials. There are also indications that Comcast will have to relax its requirement that any participant pay all of remaining past balances in order to participate. Craig was careful to credit the involvement of a citywide coalition, Media Mobilizing, as the critical driver for a new agreement.

Seattle after a year of negotiating on their 10-year renewal walked away from signing an agreement with Comcast hearing about the terms in Philly and demanded “me, too” and more.

…KIRO reports that Comcast had already promised Seattle 600 free connections for nonprofits, $8 million in support for public, education, or government channels, free service to government and school buildings, and access to Internet Essentials. As compared to the Philadelphia deal, though, that leaves a lot of Seattle residents out in the digital cold. So, as the Seattle Times reports, city officials sent a letter to Comcast demanding a deal more like Philly’s… and they won. During weekend negotiations, Comcast agreed to include Seattle’s seniors in the Internet Essentials expansion pilot, as well as to increase a city grant for narrowing the digital divide tenfold, from $50,000 to $500,000.

Clearly Comcast didn’t all of a sudden become a warm and fuzzy good corporate citizen in these communities, but the movement on lowering barriers to lower income families, adding eligibility for senior citizens to fixed cost basic access, and, very importantly, finally putting real dollars into outreach for enrollment, rather than its own self-serving marketing, all add up to real progress. Houston, Shreveport, Little Rock, Charlotte, and other Comcast-captive cities, take note, we have leverage, and we need to use it

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comcast-Time Warner Merger Must be Stopped!

comcastNew Orleans   Comcast has announced a $45 billion and change merger to acquire Times Warner Cable in a ruthless effort to consolidate the cable industry.  They would put their leading 21.6 million customers with Times Warner’s 11.4 customers.  They claim this is not an anti-trust problem because they don’t overlap with Times Warner in any zipcode in the country.  They are also willing to shed 3 million customers to get down to only 30 million total to make someone happy, though I’m not sure who, since this is all total baloney anyway.

The head of Comcast says, hey, no problem, we’re still abiding by the requirements on the earlier mega-merger when it acquired NBC/Universal.  Then there is also plenty of fluff about how they need this merger in order to compete for better content for viewers and the speculation about how this might help consumers because it just might give Comcast a stronger hand in negotiating for program content.

Horsefeathers!  You don’t buy something for $45 billion and then lower prices for your cable users, which are already astronomically high, and with recent court rulings could go higher while creating two-tiered access to the internet anyway.  Let’s get this straight.  On main street USA, Comcast is not a content company, but a cable company delivering an often inaccessible television and internet signal at alarmingly low speeds for exorbitant prices.  Show me the Americans that love their cable company?

And, as for Comcast promises, forget about it.  I feel like a broken record, but it is impossible not to remind that the FCC ordered Comcast to lower the digital divide and create a program for lower income internet access.   This was a condition of the FCC’s approval of the NBC/Universal merger.  The company pulled together a sophisticated public relations and local lobbying campaign mainly about getting applause for themselves for the idea, rather than the implementation.  The $9.99 plan was narrowed to a 2 or 3 year package for free-and-reduced price lunch eligible families including a refurbished computer, but the outreach depended on getting the schools to sell their cable service and pass out their brochures.  Talk about a plan designed for failure, since being Comcast’s marketing arm is about the last thing that schools have any time to do.  We filed complaints in Little Rock, Shreveport, and Houston about the inaccessibility of the implementation, and despite all of Comcast’s self-congratulation, and Executive Vice-President David Cohen’s constantly delusional denials of the facts of their failure to achieve significant gains in lower income access, the FCC slapped a $750,000 fine on them and added another year to the requirement that they get this right.   It has been same song, different verse though, and we are awaiting action on the same complaints from the same people again.

This is a company that needs to be broken up, not allowed to realize its monopoly ambitions.  Internet and cable should be seen as necessary public utilities, not as the captive cash cows to finance Hollywood visions.  We need real regulation that guarantees access and higher speed, not more wheeler-dealer balderdash.  Treat the cable and internet business as a basic utility with a fair profit and let them play Hollywood East from Philadelphia.

I don’t care how close a friend the papers want to claim David Cohen is with President Obama, the President knows better on this one.  Let Eric Holder, the Attorney-General, let the anti-trust division of the Justice Department loose on this one and don’t make a deal until finally American consumers get a real break and we all get the access we need so that everybody has an opportunity to use the internet, rather than watch another crummy reality show, ball game, or soap opera.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail