Another blow to Philadelphia’s bid for federal stimulus dollars to help bridge the digital divide may have come the way of a Center City skyscraper.
Comcast has filed controversial commentary that some speculate could hurt Philadelphia-based requests for broadband stimulus grants.
In a move seen elsewhere in the U.S., the Center City-based telecommunications giant submitted formal comments to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on three Philadelphia-based applications – each seeking a piece of $4.6 billion in broadband grants – including the infrastructure portion of the city’s Digital Philadelphia vision.
Local pundits say the move is intended to challenge Philly’s broadband proposals. Broadband activists, like Rutgers University Professor Todd Wolfson, say it is an attempt to suggest that the applications are ineligible for grants, which seek to provide money to areas “unserved” or “underserved” by broadband connectivity.
The NTIA requires that grants go to locations where the rate of broadband subscription is below 40 percent of households. Though broadband penetration is estimated to be as low as 50 percent in Philadelphia, Comcast’s actual coverage blankets higher percentages of the population.
Comcast submitted to the NTIA a summary of its coverage area and subscriber information in the Philadelphia region, Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice tells Technically Philly.
“We would not describe it as a ‘challenge,’ we describe it as filing factual information,” she said in a telephone interview. “There was an opportunity to object, but this is just a straight description of where we provide service and where we don’t.”
Wolfson, though, says it’s about business competition. He points to a story published in October by Bloomberg, pinning Comcast Vice President David L. Cohen against proposals that undermine Comcast’s business.
“Those applications don’t qualify for funding primarily because they are applications to provide service in areas where there is already broadband service,” Cohen told the publication.
Despite speculation, though, Comcast has not filed suit to try to block grants to the city. City Chief Technology Officer Allan Frank, who organized dozens of stakeholders throughout the city to plan the Digital Philadelphia proposals, said rumors that Comcast is trying to squash potential competition are not true.
“We have a good relationship with Comcast,” he said in an e-mail to Technically Philly.
The Division of Technology‘s $21.8 middle mile infrastructure application, Wilco Electronics Systems‘ $21.8 million fiber network application for underserved low-income public housing residents and the Delaware County Library System‘s $300,000 proposal each received the same public notice from Comcast.
The City’s sustainable broadband adoption proposal it took a part of the Digital Philadelphia vision submitted by Free Library, along with the Philadelphia Housing Authority‘s $2.3 million dollar public computer center bid, were left unmentioned by the telecom.
Wolfson, who helped draft the broadband adoption portion of the Digital Philadelphia proposal, says that Comcast “needs to be held accountable” for limiting the build-out of affordable broadband infrastructure in the city.
“The political question isn’t whether we’re going to get training programs, the political question is whether we’re going to get infrastructure that creates competition,” he says.
Comcast’s responses could further deter the city’s chances to nab federal broadband money, after the Commonwealth dissed the Digital Philadelphia vision in recommendations to the NTIA in October, as we reported.
Frank says that there’s still a second round of funding and still hope.
“The fact is federal guidelines for broadband basically shut out big cities with multiple telcos [in the first round of funding],” he says. “[Broadband is] available, just unaffordable.”