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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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.

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An Insider Hits the Nakedness of the Charter School Empire


New Orleans   Everywhere around the country, charter schools and their operators are poking through the concrete of school yards like weeds.  Billionaires and beleaguered Mayors and school superintendents often herald their potential as a way out of their own gnarled path of over grown capacity and underfunded programs.  Huge fights in Philadelphia and now Chicago are closing hundreds of urban schools, making a smaller charter movement still educating less than 1% of the total public school population nationally seem like a viable alternative, all of which forces all of us who care about public schools to continue to examine the situation in New Orleans that since Hurricane Katrina remains the largest urban charter school experiment in America.

A new voice, Professor Brian Beabout of the University of New Orleans, won the 2013 Emerging Scholar Award from the American Educational Research Association, for a careful, but not dispassionate study of the charter system having spent 4 years in the New Orleans system as a Teach for America instructor before making the transition to academia.  His analysis, reported in Baton Rouge’s The Advocate should be a sober warning to the charter cheerleaders.

First, he pops the bubble that the New Orleans charter changes were “wiping the slate clean,” especially because a “series of inequities” were foundation in the new school regimes including some charters not providing busing, others with enrollment ceilings, selective admissions, and perplexing lottery entry procedures.  In cost saving charters he scores the reliance on green, inexperienced and cheap teachers like he was in his first four years as a teacher and notes that contrary to the charter public relations, many of the old teachers were categorically the “best teachers he has ever come across,” though some 7500 school employees were fired after Katrina.

He notes as well that contrary to the decentralization mantra of the charter movement in New Orleans increasingly some of these functions have had to be centralized, especially those that were benefiting the charters by discriminating like the expulsion policies and the application process.  Professor Beabout astutely notes that as charter operators add more schools to their brand, they “resemble districts” which he called “antithetical to the charter movement.”  Additionally, putting a lie to the claims that charter schools bring diversity, he notes that most of the larger operators look increasingly the same.  Although Beabout did not use this metaphor, they seem like Ford and Chevy competing against each other rather than a race between a tractor and a race car.   Beabout is also clear the talk of charters returning “power to the community” is nothing more than rhetoric, given the unrepresentative nature of charter boards and the continued usurpation of the citizens’ right to vote for school boards overseeing all of the schools.

Beabout’s recommendations were also fascinating.  He argued for the following:

  • A $1000 penalty in reduction of state aid as a fine to charter schools using selective admissions.
  • A better relationships between charters and the community.  The Future is Now Oprah fiasco couldn’t be a better example of this need.
  • The need for transparency around the construction on new facilities which he currently compared to “3-year-olds at a Christmas party” as well as transparency on teacher assignments.

Beabout was clear, as I have been in writing about this in the past, that the current charter movement in New Orleans is completely unsustainable currently and propped up by outside, ideologically motivated money and interests trying to pump up test scores to claim a coup against unions and other public school advocates, none of which can be handled with current tax revenues in an unaccountable and undemocratic system.   As Beabout states clearly, “If the outside dollars go away, it will come to a crashing halt.”

The charter movement in New Orleans is currently a hustle built on a house of cards, not a model of reform or something other schools could or should duplicate.

Please click  Charter Schools on the Radio.

 

 

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Could More than 40% of Philly Voters Be Denied the Ballot?

New Orleans  A headline from the Naked City blog by Daniel Denvir in Philadelphia caught my eye:  “A Whopping 43 Percent of Philly Voters May Not Have Voter ID, According to New Data.”  Holy-moly!  No wonder the Republicans think their voter suppression effort in the Pennsylvania legislature, according to their leadership, may have handed the state to Romney in the upcoming election.

The new data seems to have come from the state AFL-CIO and the numbers crunched out this way, according to Denvir:

The new data, received and processed by the AFL-CIO, for the first time includes voters who had PennDOT licenses that have (as of Monday) been expired since Nov. 6, 2011 or an earlier date. If those people do not renew their licenses, the licenses will be expired by at least one year on election day and thus invalid under the new law. And because the AFL-CIO’s voter file (which shows the already-publicized large number of voters with no PennDOT record) is seven months old, it could actually represent an undercount since it does not address whether those who have registered as voters since January have valid ID.

I reached out for Craig Robbins, who directs the work of the community organization, Action United, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and asked him if this could really be possible.  Craig pulled me off the ceiling since I had blown a gasket before dawn reading this.  Very soberly, he advised:

No-the 18 percent figure that was put out a couple weeks ago after the state actually matched the voter records with the official state issued ID records is closer to the truth but even that is probably a stretch. But whatever it is, it’s suppression and if it stands (I can’t believe it will be allowed to stand) it will have a serious impact.

The 18% figure, which would put it darned close to 1 out of 5 voters pushed out of the polling stations is actually pretty horrendously anti-democratic, too, so it’s hard not to be spitting mad at watching this level of civil-rights-era voter suppression happening right under our noses.  Denvir climbs off the wall himself in his piece and echoes Craig’s point, but also underlines the Republican bait-and-switch of claiming that 1% or less of Pennsylvania’s voters would have an ID problem in voting, which regardless of the numbers is now widely acknowledged, to quote Craig again, that “it’s suppression.”  Clearly no one in PA knows who is on first and what is on second, other than they want to steal an election.

Again, Naked City:

But it is the state’s very inability to determine a final estimate of just how many Pennsylvanians might be impacted by the law that has fueled criticism. Initially, the state said that only 1 percent lacked valid ID. On July 3, that number skyrocketed when the Pennsylvania Secretary of State announced that 758,939 registered voters in the state, or 9 percent, may not have PennDOT IDs. In Philadelphia, 186,830 registered voters were not found in the PennDOT database, or 18 percent.

The Justice Department is now banging on the door of the courts, but this is way out of hand and the clock to the election is ticking so even with a dues ex machina injunction, some voters out there are undoubtedly already dissuaded from voting, so that harm is now irreparable in an election that is now too close to call this November.

Organizations like ACTION United are doing what they can.  When I asked, Craig reports that they are organizing a gang of “Voter Mobilizers.”

Voter Mobilizers!  Training 200 members statewide to do VR, cleanup voter list, educate and ID folks w voter ID issues and finally turn them all out to vote. Big leadership development program for us in Philly and Pitt.

Even hard work like that could be “too little, too late,” if there’s not a full court press by everyone and a judge with some sense that democracy and fair elections are still important in the United States.

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Comcast Concedes Up Selling, Cox & Times-Warner Continue Silence, and FCC Snoozes

New Orleans  The cynicism that surrounds the claims of cable companies and the FCC around lowering the “digital divide” continues to move from cloudy skies to deepest fog with absolutely no action from the FCC to solve the problem, enforce its own order, or prevent embarrassment from its own prior, public announcements.   The FCC has ceased to be an effective corporate regulator, and moved to a position akin to a hand puppet.

In a top level meeting in recent weeks between the directors of our coalition ally, ACTION United, in Philadelphia with Comcast officials that direct the Internet access program, the company frankly and flatly conceded that “yes” they were up selling to poor people who were unable to navigate access to the company for their low-cost Internet access system.  ACTION United, Local 100 United Labor Unions, ACORN International and other organizations had sent one complaint after another to the FCC about exactly this practice and in tests with our members have duplicated it time after time as a continuing and ongoing policy of Comcast.  All of this directly contradicts the FCC order in Comcast’s acquisition of NBC/Universal that they provide such access to lower income families.  Despite the company’s concession, the Comcast executives gave no assurances that the policy would change.

The FCC has failed now to respond to any complaints filed from Houston, Little Rock, Shreveport, or Philadelphia.  In Philadelphia there is some indication that the FCC simply turned the formally filed complaints over to the company for action (inaction?!?), which indicates how captive the agency is to the companies it regulates.

Despite huge publicity and announcements in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal by the head of the FCC that there was a “voluntary” agreement by Cox and Time-Warner to provide similar service in the spring, there has been no announcement whatsoever that such a program has been prepared or exists.  Correspondence to Cox and Times-Warner in Louisiana and Texas from Local 100 United Labor Unions interested in enrolling our members and the Head Start families that we represent has not been answered.   The companies are hoping that poor and working families have as little knowledge of their promises as they have of the Internet, and probably aided and abetted by the FCC, felt confident that they didn’t really need to do anything anyway.

What an interesting set of government policies and corporate implementations this is.  There is no need to do little more than pretend, since performance means nothing and only marketing has meaning.  Meanwhile the divide gets wider and wider between the top and the bottom.

Thanks for nothing, FCC!

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