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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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.

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Comcast Monopoly Strategy: Be the Biggest Bully on the Block

Comcast_Public_Knowledge_Anti_TWC_Deal_WideNew Orleans         Sometimes you just have to scratch your head and admit that you are out of your pay grade. That’s where I’m heading in trying to figure out why the giant Comcast believes its best political and commercial strategy for achieving monopoly concentration in the cable and internet world is to be the biggest bully on the block. Yet, darned if that’s not the way David Cohen, Comcast’s executive vice-president, is calling the plays.

Not that I’m surprised, since that’s the way Cohen and Comcast chose to deal, or I guess I should more accurately say, not deal, with Local 100 United Labor Unions, Action United, and ACORN International in our demands and entreaties that they actually make their public relations internet program, Internet Essentials, really work. Shame on us for believing that because the $10 per month program was a requirement in the FCC order approving their last big merger with Universal that they would actually do something real to bridge the internet divide for lower income families rather than have their government relations people just wine and dine local politicians in their cities.

In the most recent bully boy schoolyard play, Cohen and Comcast dropped a 1000 pages on the FCC mainly whining that some of their business buddies and potential, oh my god can it be true, competitors, have opposed their monopoly play to acquire Times-Warner for selfish reasons about protecting their own businesses. I guess Comcast believes that they have some kind of monopoly on self-interest as well, or maybe it’s just the modern hubris of “what’s good for GM is good for the country” and their arrogance that they believe what is good for Comcast is therefore good for the American people.

Comcast’s main claim is that its buddies were involved in extortion. I do have to take this seriously, since Comcast has certainly proven that it probably knows more about everyday extortion than virtually any company working on the planet now. Netflix’s spokesperson replied tit for tat to that claim though by saying, “It is not extortion to demand that Comcast provide its own customers the broadband speeds they’ve paid for so that they can enjoy Netflix. It is extortion when Comcast fails to provide its own customers the broadband speed they’ve paid for unless Netflix also pays a ransom.” Boom! Now we’re talking trash that’s music to our ears!

So I have to wonder, will trying to bully the FCC and point fingers at everyone else work, because if so, we need to modify our strategy in trying to push the FCC to do better in providing internet access for our people? One finger wagging reported in the New York Times, from a media analyst said, “Regulators are a sophisticated audience. They can assess the merits of the various arguments without having to be coached on what incentives might be behind why someone did or didn’t say what they did.”

Of course I’m not that sophisticated, but I do know some simple things. If Comcast can’t even pretend to play nice before they are allowed to become a monopoly, how can any of us or the FCC believe that letting them become an even bigger monopoly will be good for any of us? We all were schooled on the basics that in dealing with a bully, you need to slap them back hard. The Comcast purchase of Times-Warner must be stopped. It’s the only way to get a bully to listen.

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Is Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” Failure Finally Going to be Exposed?

qs2_bor_rou_shaNew Orleans    For several years, we have bombarded the FCC with complaints from our members in Little Rock, Houston, Shreveport and elsewhere about the travesty of Comcast’s so-called “internet essentials” program.  Some will remember that a condition of the toothless FCC’s approval of Comcast’s giant acquisition of NBC/Universal was Comcast’s creation of a $10 internet access program for lower income customers along with inexpensive access to low cost, refurbished computers largely provided by Dell.  The program in reality has largely been about public relations and political influence, and certainly not real work delivering the program to lower income families.  We were able to provide enough evidence of its failed promises that the FCC fined Comcast for its failure and extended the program.  In additional PR moves, the company claims it voluntarily is extending the program in its monopolistic efforts to now buy Times-Warner cable and dominate the cable and broadband internet services in the United States.  Likely, this extension was gratuitous since they were also likely to be headed for an additional fine and mandatory extension if the FCC was anything other than a tool of the company.

            Perhaps there is still truth to the saying that “you can run, but you can’t hide,” because now as its monopoly is being questioned by some politicians and is pending before the FCC, others besides ourselves are finally clearing the air around the company’s smokescreen obscuring the terrible performance of Internet Essentials.  A Washington Post article  pointedly zeroed in on the program appropriately as the Achilles heel in the company’s baloney about its greed.  Predictably VP David Cohen, who has been the front man for both of these efforts, responded not with a thoughtful acceptance and commitment to finally make the program work, but a whine about the poor, little company, essentially just trying to do good for the sake of doing good, which has to classify as the biggest pile of bull I’ve heard in years.  Or, as he says precisely, “…every once in a while, even a big company does a good thing for the right reasons.”  We can only all reply that, yes, that does happen every once in a while, but that is definitely not the case here with Comcast.

            The Post scores the company for computers that don’t work, families that aren’t still on the internet, poor participation, and slow speeds, and believe me if they had talked to our members in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas or our partners in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia they would have found that they are only glancing at the surface.  For Comcast, this is a hand wave at the problem of the digital divide and, read the FCC orders, less than that in terms of real compliance with the conditions of their purchase of NBC/Universal.  This was NOT a voluntary feel-good effort.  The “good thing” would have been delivering for low income families.  The “right reason” was not corporate benevolence but the clear language of an FCC order that the FCC has already had to enforce with discipline, even though it was more like a hand slap.

            If this is the way Comcast spins reality into its dream machine, can you imagine what they might say a year or two down the road to explain their role in building a monopoly and restricting progress guaranteed by universal access to the internet when they are so cavalier, inept, and frankly duplicitous about their failures with Internet Essentials?

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FCC Seems Unwilling to Confront Monopolies to Create Digital Access

New Orleans  In Congressional hearings vetting the President’s nominee, Tom Wheeler, as the new Chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) there seems to be little hope that we will get the progress needed in creating national standards for higher speed internet connections or a reduction of the digital divide. Wheeler was quoted yesterday stating his philosophy that “competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets.”  Since in the land of Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Times-Warner we have monopoly practices and uncompetitive markets, Wheeler seems clueless about the current communications environment, and he would be the person responsible for regulation.  

            Despite our campaign over the last two years to force the FCC and Comcast to finally live up to the FCC’s requirement in their order approving Comcast’s purchase of NBC/Universal that they provide a plan for less than $10 per month for lower income families, they persist in doing the least they can get away with, rather than acting in the spirit of the order.  The FCC seems either powerless or passive in its unwillingness to enforce its order with any enthusiasm despite our complaints.   Toney Orr, Local 100’s Arkansas director, reported that of the 25 customers we turned into Comcast recently, 20 have now received their “internet essentials” program, but that proves my point:  they are not doing outreach to eligible participants, only waving their hands in the direction of lower income families.  If Local 100 does the work, they are happy to lift a little finger, but lord no do not ask them to create a real program with real penetration in the market to reduce the digital divide. 

            Don’t take my word for it.  Read Professor Susan Crawford’s excellent new book:  Captive Audience:  The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.   This one sentence on page 266 says everything anyone might want to know about the effectiveness of the Comcast Internet Essentials offering or the even lamer “voluntary” promises from Cox Cable and Times-Warner to provide lower cost access to low income families:

“Voluntary services from private carriers are costly gifts that do little to move the country forward.”

Amen!

Earlier in the same paragraph Crawford is even clearer about the whole challenge:

“Moving from a high-speed Internet access model based on overcharging rich, urban residents for bundles of services while letting the state subsidize slow access for poor or rural residents to a model based on the assumption that America requires fast, standard, reliable, and unbundled fiber-optic Internet access at reasonable prices will present many challenges…government intervention is necessary to ensure unfettered competition.”

Crawford makes an excellent, irrefutable case that Comcast, AT&T, and others are simply operating now as monopolies with the sycophantic assistance of the FCC and too many in Congress are allowing them to do it.  In the name of their own profits and business model these companies are retarding America’s economic growth and competitive position around the world.  She states the obvious:  the internet and telecommunications are utilities like water and electricity.  As such they are necessities that need to be regulated in the same way, and that’s not happening now.

Unfortunately every word that came out of Wheeler’s mouth in his nomination hearing indicates that he is a captive of the monopolies and absolutely doesn’t get it!  We have trouble ahead of us.

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