City Hall Has a Rough Deal With Comcast — Here’s What You Need to Know

It includes discounted Internet for more low-income residents and commitments to better customer service.

Photo by John Murdock via Instagram

Photo by John Murdock via Instagram

The proposed deal between Comcast and City Hall was finally unveiled today.

In case you haven’t been following along at home, the cable giant has been negotiating a new 15-year franchise agreement with the city so that it can continue accessing streets, poles and other public property in Philadelphia in order provide cable and Internet service to local residences and businesses.

Cities typically have precious little leverage over giant telecom companies like Comcast. But when franchise deals expire and new ones must be negotiated, cities get a rare chance to extract some concessions from cable providers because they can theoretically tell the Comcasts of the world to pound sand (though federal regulations make that tricky).

City Councilman Bobby Henon introduced a bill Thursday that highlights the broad outlines of Philadelphia’s proposed deal with Comcast and provided supplemental information about it to reporters afterward. The agreement is very much a work in progress. What was released today totals five pages in all; the final legislation is expected to be hundreds of pages long.

Still, it’s important and it’s a doozy, so we’ve broken it down for you. Here are 10 things you need to know about the proposed agreement:

  1. Under the plan, Comcast would expand its “Internet Essentials” program, which provides discounted high-speed Internet service to low-income households with school-aged children. Anti-poverty advocates have said in the past that Internet Essential falls short because seniors and other Philadelphians without young children cannot sign up for it. Under this new proposal, Comcast would permit seniors, veterans and people with disabilities to enroll. No details are available, though, on the maximum amount of income you can earn to qualify.
  2. Comcast would create a new customer service call center. It would hire 200 employees from Philadelphia. No word yet on whether this call center would focus exclusively on customer service problems in the region or nationwide. (Fingers crossed.)
  3. Comcast would tighten up its customer service standards. The company would automatically provide “credits” to subscribers who experience delays in service calls or outages that last longer than one day. It would provide advance notice to customers when their special package or promotion is about to expire. (Who hasn’t been shocked when their bill suddenly goes up after a promotion ends?) And it would provide “enhanced” reports on customer service complaints and call answering stats to the city.
  4. Comcast would provide wireless network access at more than 200 locations throughout the city. The proposal says the city would use this network to offer “wireless access in public areas where government services are provided,” including parks, KEYSPOT locations, health centers, and police and fire stations. Adel Ebeid, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, explained in an email, “To be clear, we would not use the WiFi to compete with any provider, but rather enhance the government services provided to our constituents while they are visiting gov buildings/grounds. For example, while you’re visiting a health center, a park & rec facility, or municipal services building, you would have access to WiFi.”
  5. Comcast would give a $500,000 grant to support the creation of something called the “Digital Inclusion Alliance Fund.” The fund would “address digital inequality in Philadelphia.” Again, no details on whether that means the fund would give away free laptops or provide digital literacy classes or what.
  6. Comcast would pay the city five percent of its total Philadelphia cable-TV revenue. That is the same fee the company pays the city today (and the maximum allowed under federal law). According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city received $17.5 million last year from the fee. Some tech experts are concerned that the city might collect less money from the fee in the future because of fleeing TV customers.
  7. Comcast would provide $18 million in funding over 15 years for public, education and government access channels, up from $8.2 million in the last franchise agreement. A report released by the city earlier this year called for $32 million over 10 years for those channels. The new proposed plan would also provide 20 hours of on-demand capacity for the channels, up from 8 hours in the last deal.
  8. Comcast would repair any poles, cables or other equipment in the city that is in violation of the National Electrical Safety Code or the National Electrical Code. The company would also provide the city with monthly reports on its progress.
  9. Even though the new franchise agreement is far from complete, everyone from city officials to community advocates seemed pleased that they have gotten this far. Henon said his introduction of bill was “extremely important” and he predicted that the city and Comcast would hammer out a “hallmark of a franchise agreement” in the end. Hannah Jane Sassaman, policy director of the Media Mobilizing Project, called the proposal “an important first step for consumers, for low-income people, and for communities across Philadelphia.” And Jeff Alexander, a spokesman for Comcast, said, “We are pleased to see progress with the franchise renewal and look forward to working with the administration and City Council to finalize an agreement that is satisfactory to the city, Comcast and our customers, and enables us to continue investing and innovating in Philadelphia.”
  10. There are no protections for Comcast workers in the current proposal. According to Sassaman, such protections were included in the city’s last franchise agreement with Comcast. She said she will advocate for that to be added to the final deal, as well as “expanded, affordable Internet,” “for Comcast to pay their share for technology education in public schools,” and for the protection of community media.

Bobby Henon’s Comcast Bill

Supplemental Information