The City of Philadelphia invited Philadelphians to air their grievances with Comcast on Tuesday evening.
It was the second of a series of public forums, organized by the city to collect feedback for its 15-year cable franchise renewal with Comcast (lost? We explained the issue here). At its height, roughly 70 people sat in the auditorium of South Philadelphia High and half as many spoke, while reps from the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology listened and consultants from CBG Communications took notes to use in an addendum to their city-commissioned report on Comcast service.
Many speakers were from activist groups you would expect: the Media Mobilizing Project, which runs a “corporate accountability project” focused on Comcast, community media outfit PhillyCAM and activist group Action United.
But there was another, somewhat surprising force in the crowd: a contingent from coworking space Indy Hall.
Five people from the coworking space testified. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but that number appeared to be on par with the presence from other groups.
From Indy Hall, there was Mike Jackson, a South Philadelphia illustrator and parent, who talked about how he didn’t want to move out to the suburbs but increasingly felt like he had no choice because of the state of the School District. He asked Comcast to invest in Philly’s schools, a common theme of the night.
“There’s a generation of people dying to stay in this city and be proud of it,” he said, “and that is all threatened with the uncertainty of our schools.”
There was Neil Bardhan, who decried the “unforgivably slow [internet] speeds” at Indy Hall, a place, he noted, that pays for business-level internet services.
And there was Rob Epler, who owns a software consultancy, who acknowledged that it’s not Comcast’s fault the city’s schools are in such dire straits. But, he said, “can we honestly say that Comcast is part of the solution?”
It was striking to see a small subset of the Philadelphia tech community organize around an issue.
(Indy Hall held a meetup to prep people on the issue and the public forum. Member Robert Jackel, an attorney, said another Indy Hall crew plans to attend the last public forum on Saturday, May 2.) It suggests the scene’s growing power, a stronger collective identity and a will for civic engagement — notably different from the conventional image of a tech scene that’s out of touch and only cares about growth and their next round of funding.
Indy Hall cofounder Alex Hillman, who has made a case for why the tech scene should get involved with the franchise talks, spoke about this kind of civic engagement as a good way to “channel our optimism.” It creates more depth, he said, than only focusing on the problem of: “How do I fix my startup?”
Comcast is attending the forums, said Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Bilotta, and it appreciates the input from the tech community.
We’ve noticed this type of civic engagement more and more, most recently with Philly Startup Leaders organizing town halls and drafting a list of its political concerns. The tech scene is also getting engaged with local politics in other ways: Indy Hall recently hosted mayoral candidate Jim Kenney to talk small business policy and roughly 350 people filled the Free Library for the tech mayoral forum during Philly Tech Week 2015 presented by Comcast.
The most common themes at the public forum, where every person was given four minutes to speak at a microphone, included:
- Rising Internet costs coupled with constant outages and slowness
- The lack of cable and internet competition in Philadelphia
- The length of the 15-year franchise agreement
- That Comcast doesn’t pay property taxes on its headquarters because of its 1o-year tax abatement
The most emphatic speaker was City Council candidate Helen Gym, who garnered huge applause after she demanded that city officials stop using their power to lobby for Comcast’s needs, like abatements and incentives.
“I need our public officials to stand up for our public schools,” she said. “Please stop demanding TIFs. Please stop going before the School District to demand abatements. … City officials cannot be the front people for this kind of behavior.”
Other notable testimonies included:
- Ronald Blount, president of the Philadelphia Taxi Workers Alliance, who said that after members of his group learned how to use the internet through the city’s KEYSPOT computer training program, they couldn’t afford to install it in their homes.
- Miranda Thompson, a tech teacher at Old City’s Constitution High School, who said she was grateful to Comcast for donating laptops to the school and a membership to online education program Khan Academy. She hoped Comcast could commit to doing those things across the city.
About four Comcast reps were present at the meeting, including one staffer from the customer service department, who planned to follow up with speakers who complained of service issues, Bilotta told us at the forum.
Earlier that day, about 100 people filled the Free Library in Rittenhouse Square for the first public forum and about 35 people spoke, said the city’s deputy chief innovation officer, Steve Robertson.
In response to the forum, Comcast’s Bilotta sent us this statement:
We value the strong partnership we have with the City of Philadelphia and its residents and are extremely proud of the world-class services we deliver throughout our hometown, as well as the significant benefits that are afforded by our franchise here. In Philadelphia, Comcast has provided more than $163 million in franchise fees in the past 10 years and delivers 12 PEG channels for community use along with substantial financial support. We look forward to a comprehensive and productive dialogue with City officials.
Before the South Philadelphia High forum, the Media Mobilizing Project held a rally in front of the school, where several spoke, including Gym, fellow City Council candidate Sherrie Cohen and three representatives from national organizations like Common Cause and the Media Action Grassroots Network. About 35 people attended the rally.
“If we can hold Comcast accountable in their hometown, then we can hold them accountable all over the country,” said Steven Renderos of the Media Action Grassroots Network. “Our members are looking to Philly.”
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