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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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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From our friends at Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay:

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

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