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

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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.

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