Pittsburgh 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