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

Cap Comcast

pittsburgh_comcast_cartoonToronto     After setbacks in its efforts to monopolize the cable and internet business, let’s take a look at how Comcast is faring. Their NBC/Universal subsidiary seems to be at the top of the pack, even as some, including our friends from Fox, are doing poorly. Blockbusters, it seems. In Philadelphia location of their world headquarters, they seem have learned little and continue to stub their toes though.

Sometimes from the thin air of the executive suites it is probably easy to forget that way down there are the little people who have to buy the service and pay their bills to keep you in your perch. In Philadelphia, Comcast is up for renewal on its 15-year cable franchise, and consumers are clear that they are not happy with the shoddy service from the company, and many continue to raise their voices about the half-hearted, lackadaisical way the company has extended internet service to the community and ignored the FCC order to do so as a condition of merging with NBC/Universal. Hollywood may be happy, but Philadelphia is not feeling the brotherly love for Comcast.

As the fight heats up, Action United, a partner in our efforts to push Comcast to actually deliver on its so-called “internet essentials” program of providing service to lower income families for about $10 per month and access to inexpensive refurbished computer. In a campaign called “Cap Comcast” the organization has been rallying support and calling on the City Council to use all of the powers in its disposal to require Comcast as a condition of any franchise renewal to have to finally hear what its customers are demanding.

A wider coalition including Action United has also found that Comcast once again is using dirty tricks to try and get its way. Earlier in the summer they uncovered and exposed a “push poll,” common in politics to try and sway voters, was being pawned off as an objective “survey” of 1000 people to influence the council. The demands have been that Comcast make real contributions to the community and donate to schools and city services some of the millions it is saving in tax abatements that its balance sheet proves are chump change for them, but are blockbusting the city itself. Comcast escaped some of the damage of this snafu once activists let out a holler, but it seems to be part of the standard pattern of the corporate arrogance by its management that rather than listening to its critics, as they continue to try and bully and posture.

Comcast is unlikely to lose its cable franchise, but its poor record on providing internet and its horrible customer service ratings undid its merger efforts with Times-Warner. Activists and organizations in Philadelphia are in good position and swinging hard to force the company to make concessions that build the community for a change, and not just the company and its executive’s ambitions.

I’m betting on the community against Comcast in Philly.

A Test is Coming in Philly on Whether or Not Comcast Has Learned a Lesson

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 9.57.08 AMMontrea    Fortune, the business magazine, ran a prominent article in their June 1st edition on Comcast with the title, “How to Lose Friends and Influence,” essentially detailing how their bully-boy ways, indifference  to customers and community, and just plain arrogance had been key factors in subverting their monopoly efforts to merge with Times-Warner Cable.  Having railed and organized for years to get Comcast to put life, rather than a lie, into their so-called “internet essentials” program required by FCC order in their Universal merger, rather than pretty much a play-pretend public relations program claiming much and doing little, I lapped the piece up based not on a bias about the company, but hard rock experience from David Cohen, their executive vice-president on down to waste of time meetings we had with company reps in Houston, Shreveport, and Little Rock.

Turns out our misery has plenty of company.  Fortune interviewed dozens of “industry insiders” and read the regulatory filings, and found  that the “Philadelphia company, indeed, might offer a rare lesson in whether having a reputation for good corporate community-ship actually matters in today’s hypercompetitive world.”  Besides regularly flipping off all of its community, as we can attest, the evidence is amazing how much it holds its own, often captive, consumers in total disdain.  Comcast managed somehow to “win” the “Worst Company in America” dishonor in both 2010 and 2014 from a Consumer Reports blog.  Fortune also reported that the American Consumer Satisfaction Index ranked their Xfinity Internet service 234th of 236 companies.

Of course Comcast is now claiming that they are “moving on.”  They also claim they are training and hiring more customer service folks by the thousand.  We take little comfort in that since it was their training of their customer service folks to up-sell the supposed low income benefit “internet essentials” program that helped us win the FCC’s fine for their bad behavior.   Out of their billions in profit they are also reportedly allocating $300 million to improving customer service, but once again that seems to all be about how the techs and field service folks speed up and sweet up their jobs.  Given their history, I would worry that their culture has to change at the top, where the tone is set, not the bottom.  It’s not the tail wagging this dog.

There’s a test in Philadelphia right now during the hearings that the City of Philadelphia has set for Comcast’s franchise renewal.  The renewal is specifically about their access to the streets and cable, less than the internet, but it still goes right to Comcast’s “corporate community-ship,” as Fortune calls it.

A Philly-based coalition called mediamobilizing.org called them out early on this saying:

 

Amidst skyrocketing profits, Comcast fights Philadelphians’ basic needs– leading and paying the largest amount in lobbying costs to oppose a campaign to guarantee earned sick days for Philadelphians, and paying little in taxes to the city that gives it so much- a rate of 3.4%, when the average in Pennsylvania is 9.99%.

 

So, clearly Comcast is not going to be able to go through the public hearings deaf to the complaints and pretending it is all about streets and cable TV.  In fact,  there is a demand for Comcast to support public access television on cable and slide over 5% of their profits to the Philadelphia general fund.  I bet that gets their attention.  Some Philadelphians aren’t all that happy that Comcast isn’t paying its fair share now, but just got $43 million in local and state tax breaks to build a second skyscraper in Center City.  Not surprisingly people want there to be more access to the internet for all the people in Philly, no matter what the fine lines are about what the city can and cannot do in a franchise agreement.

Fortune ends their piece saying that the Harvard Business School will be using Comcast as a case study for years to come on their botched merger and what they learn from their mistakes.  We hope they hear people in Philly and around the country calling for less contempt, more access, and better cable and internet, because that would truly be worth the study.

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Thunda N Shakin: Pebble Mine Song. Bristol Bay Alaska. Lopker song

Philadelphia is ‘Very Angry’ with Comcast

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 5.23.00 PMNew Orleans       Just to be clear.  It’s not just me, ACORN International, Local 100 United Labor Unions, and the Arkansas Community Organizations who are ripping mad at Comcast for high rates, bad service, and making a cruel joke out of the “internet essentials” program rather than using it to help lower income families crawl over the digital divide:  it’s all of Philly, too!  Our partner, Action United, showed up and stood up at the first hearing in Philly on whether or not the Comcast franchise agreement should be renewed or renegotiated in Comcast’s home city.  They kicked it, as you can read from the Philadelphia Inquirer story.  Let’s see if Comcast finally hears what we’re saying.  Or, not?

 

 

 

 

 

Phila. is ‘very angry’ with Comcast

Bob Fernandez, Inquirer Staff Writer 

Posted: Wednesday, April 29, 2015, 1:08 AM

City residents complained Tuesday about everything from Comcast Corp.’s troubled customer service to TV rates and corporate taxes during Philadelphia’s first public hearings on the cable giant’s request to renew its citywide franchise agreements.

“We here in Philadelphia are very angry with you,” Monica Rozin said at the mostly calm noon hearing in the basement of a public library off Rittenhouse Square. “Technology gets less expensive and you get more so.”

In the late afternoon, about 40 people held a rally outside South Philadelphia High School – the site of a second hearing – calling for Comcast to “pay its fair share” of taxes, expand a program for affordable Internet service, and freeze rates.

Activists also called for the company to continue funding PhillyCAM – public-access television channels and a studio.

The rally was organized by the nonprofit Media Mobilizing Project, a frequent Comcast critic, and joined by other organizations involved with disabled individuals, workers’ rights, and low-income housing.

“Remember, this is a deal,” Lance Haver, the city’s director of civic engagement, said at the 30-minute rally. “Comcast wants our rights-of-way and rights to our public spaces, and we have every right to demand what we want.”

About 60 people attended the hearing at Southern High. Many of them also attended the rally.

The hearings are part of a renewal process that began in 2013 and has gathered some speed this month with Mayor Nutter’s release of a 571-page consultant survey of the city’s cable- and Internet-related needs.

The four cable franchise agreements between Comcast and the city government expire in August, September, and October.

“We love Philadelphia, and value the strong partnership we have with the city and its residents, and are extremely proud of the world-class services we deliver here, as well as the significant benefits that are afforded by our franchise,” Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander said Tuesday.

“In Philadelphia, Comcast has provided more than $163 million in franchise fees in the past 10 years and delivers 12 PEG [public, educational, and government access] channels for community use, along with substantial financial support,” he added.

Alexander said Comcast, which employs 8,000 workers at its headquarters and other facilities in the city, looks to have “a comprehensive and productive dialogue with city officials.”

Emotions ran high at times at the noon meeting, attended by about 40 people. But for the most part, the speakers were respectful, laughing and clapping.

Mike Miller, a 20-year city resident, feared that his Social Security number might fall into the wrong hands. “I would like them to destroy the Social Security numbers in their files and replace them with non-identifying numbers,” he said.

Oren Panitch, a Northern Liberties resident and Web developer, said, “We should be the shining example of what [Comcast] can bring to the rest of the country, but instead they want to charge more.”

Rosemary Devers of South Philadelphia said, “I’ve got a number of complaints.” One of them, she said, was talking with Comcast customer call representatives in the Philippines when she has a problem.

The next hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday at the MAST Community Charter School at 1800 Byberry St. Another will be at noon Thursday at the Community Center at Visitation, 2646 Kensington Ave.

The last two are at 5 p.m. Thursday at Martin Luther King High School, 6100 Stenton Ave., and noon Saturday at Bible Way Baptist Church, 1323 N. 52d St.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials and Lousy Customer Service Brought Them Down, Too

comcast-sucks-2Austin       The failure of Comcast’s monopoly-merger mania would almost be Biblical in the “pride cometh before a fall” sense if it were not so predictable, and if, we, and thankfully a whole lot of other people in a whole lot of other places, had not repeatedly tried to tell them so and warn them repeatedly.  But, it’s really not Biblical, it’s more a P.T. Barnum problem of their thinking that because they could fool the people once, they could fool them all the time.

And, speaking of pride, I swelled up a bit reading the lead paragraphs in the New York Times analyzing their mega-fail and starting with the fake digital divide effort Comcast pretended to make on their so-called “internet essentials” program where the FCC had ordered that they provide a low-cost access to lower income families in order to gobble up NBC/Universal, and as we have frequently outlined they spend more on wining and dining local politicians and making so-called contributions to groups they wanted to have stand up for them before the FCC than they ever spent on actually doing the outreach or following through on the program.  Though they claim that only paid a fine on one condition of the order, they gloss over the fact that they had to pay $750,000 and add a year for their huge failure and fake effort on helping to bridge the digital divide.

This Comcast scam is too egregious and finally its comeuppance is too delicious not to quote in full:

“Critics, however, call Internet Essentials, a public relations stunt that failed to deliver on its promise, with restrictive qualifications, limited reach and poor service.  Comcast committed to making the program available to 2.5 million low-income households.  The company announced in March that the program had connected 450,000 families – or about 17 percent of eligible households….’Regulators were sold a bill of goods,’ said John Bergmayer…at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that has criticized the effectiveness of Internet Essentials…’I’d be curious whether they spent more time marketing in D.C. to policy makers than to people who qualify for the program.’”

That’s not a curiosity, that’s a statement of fact, and not just in DC but in any city hall and governmental jurisdiction where they operated.

In the same piece the report says, “Comcast officials say that the population is difficult to reach and that getting people to sign up for the service has been harder than they thought.”  Balderdash!  We told David Cohen, the chief flak, repeatedly and to his face that handing out leaflets to beleaguered school teachers was NOT an outreach program.  WE told him to his face, in writing, and repeatedly up and down the Comcast chain in Congressmen’s offices and with his governmental relations folks that the program was too complex, there was no follow through, you couldn’t sign up, they tried to upsell people, the computers didn’t work, etc, etc, and they accused us of “shaking them down.”  Look who is busted now.

Turns out now that the deal has collapse, that they also couldn’t get over the fact as well that their customers, many of whom are also voters, don’t like high priced, crummy cable and internet coupled with rude and non-existent customer service.  Really?  Is that a surprise to anyone but Comcast?  And, did Brian Roberts, the Comcast chief, really think promising the FCC’s Tom Wheeler that they would deliver “first in class service” had any credibility whatsoever.  Justice was sure there were antitrust problems and the FCC was sure not only that the deal was not in the public interest, but also that there was no way that they could hold Comcast accountable.  Comcast proved that to them on NBC Universal.

It’s not over.

They may call Philadelphia their corporate headquarters and they may be waving around the fact they are building a second high rise, but they are now facing a franchise renewal hearing.  What goes around, comes around and our campaign partner, Action United in Pennsylvania will undoubtedly be at the hearing to remind Comcast how lame their internet essentials program has been, how terrible their service is, and what they demand Comcast is going to have to do to get right with the people in the City of Brotherly Love, as opposed to Wall Street and Washington.

Comcast Tactics Increasingly Transparent

comcast_logo_detailNew Orleans    We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep saying it again, but Comcast’s strategy to win approval of its monopoly in cable with a merger with Times-Warner has become increasingly obvious as one that builds support almost strictly on a “pay to play” basis under its architect, chief lobbyist and bullyboy, David Cohen. Tactically, it has muscled up support for its merger through its donations program almost exclusively. Even the New York Times has finally followed the crumbs back to the source.

Cohen of course denies everything as always.

None of us will forget just a couple of years ago that when our partner, Action United in Pennsylvania carried all of our grievances in Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas with their fake, public relations $9.99 internet access program, despite the FCC requirement that they do the work to justify the merger with Universal the kind of performance Cohen put on. The suggestion that their outreach program, which consisted solely of leaning on schools to pass out brochures and their lobbyists wining and dining local politicians about their generosity, was woefully inadequate and they needed actual help in hitting the doors and doing real outreach, was greeted rudely by Cohen accusing us of asking for a bribe or something. Whoa there, cowboy! The FCC of course agreed with us and forced the company to pay a $750,000 fine, which Cohen probably also thought was a bribe as well, just of them rather than us, and continue their program for additional years. One of the gratuitous offers Comcast and Cohen have made to create the monopoly with Times-Warner is to continue the same program though of course still without making meaningful changes that would actually lead to any bridging of the digital divide to lower income families.

Nonprofits who are involved in partnerships with big corporations and their corporate contribution programs know the score. You take the money from their open hands for this or that, unless it’s part of a court settlement or an aggressive campaign, and the day will come when your liaison calls and carefully couches his request in the most positive light as not having been a quid pro quo but they need help before this hearing or that district or whatever and would it be possible for you to issue a statement, write a letter, testify or whatever to the work we have done together. Certainly ACORN and our banking partners on our housing program often got these calls, and we would push back or modify them to an agreeable proposition, but it was all part of the game, and chits were shelved for the future, just as antes had been placed on the past.

With a crew of reportedly 140 federally registered lobbyists and god knows how many working state by state, region by region, market by market, Cohen is no slouch, and they would know how to put a quota on their governmental relations crew to produce the number of statements they wanted to the FCC from groups that they had given money to for this or that in order to deposit money in the “future” bank for just this kind of FCC play.

Luckily, despite all of Comcast’s and Cohen’s denials, this is not the FCC’s first time at the rodeo either. It’s a shame to see so many nonprofits snared in this mess, but times are tough and rationalizations are pennies on the dollar as well in the pay-to-play political game.