City's new Comcast contract expands internet access for low-income Philadelphians - Technical.ly Philly

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Dec. 4, 2015 10:21 am

City’s new Comcast contract expands internet access for low-income Philadelphians

All parties (except for PhillyCAM) are championing the contract as a win for Philly.

At City Council's Comcast franchise renewal hearing. Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid is in the glasses, second from left.

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Full disclosure: Comcast was the title sponsor of Philly Tech Week 2015, which was organized by Technical.ly's events team.

If approved, the final version of Comcast’s 15-year franchise agreement with the city will make the internet more accessible to tens of thousands of low-income Philadelphians.

All parties — City Council, Comcast and local activists — are championing the contract as huge win for Philadelphia.

Yesterday afternoon, after hours of delay, City Council’s public property committee approved the proposed agreement, paving the way for the contract to be approved by all of City Council next week. It’s happening at the last possible moment: they’ll vote on the bill at the last Council meeting of the year.

“If this agreement is implemented the way that we have discussed, it will prove to the world that Comcast has put Philadelphia first, and that’s what we want and what we demand,” said Councilman Bobby Henon, who leads the public property committee and has been running the Council hearings on the issue.

The big changes from the initial contract draft, announced in late October, include a number of provisions that aim to make internet more accessible for low-income Philadelphians. It’s a show of what the city and activists were able to get done: When the Comcast franchise talks began, Comcast emphasized that the contract was about cable and not internet service.

“This cable television franchise renewal pertains solely to the delivery of our cable television service in Philadelphia,” a Comcast spokeswoman said back in April. “It does not apply to Internet access, telecom policy, or other unrelated issues.”

But activists, along with City Council, increasingly focused on internet access as the franchise talks went on, especially at the most recent hearing last Tuesday.

Here’s a look at the digital access initiatives that are part of the proposed contract:

  • For five years, Internet Essentials, Comcast’s low-cost internet service, will be available to those who do not have children as part of a new program where a nonprofit, backed by a $250,000 grant from Comcast, will subsidize the cost of the service.
  • For five years, Comcast will eliminate the “90-day window,” which required customers applying for Comcast’s low-cost Internet Essentials service to not have Comcast service for 90 days. This was a major issue that activists and Council zeroed in on during the last Council hearing. The city will pay for two-thirds ($20) of the cost of Internet Essentials for each customer that signs up as part of the so-called 90-day amnesty program. (After five years, the city will re-assess how to move forward, a Comcast spokeswoman said.)
  • Comcast will pilot all of its new Internet Essentials programs here in Philadelphia. (It launched a pilot of senior citizens in Florida earlier this year, for example.)
  • Comcast will pilot Internet Essentials for senior citizens.

Hannah Sassaman, the Media Mobilizing Project organizer who has been leading the activist charge during the franchise talks, struck a similar tone, saying that, if the agreement passes, “Philadelphia [will have] secured the strongest communications franchise in the country in so many ways.”

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Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Bilotta called it “an unprecedented renewal,” adding: “We are thrilled to have reached an agreement with the City and look forward to final passage next week. The commitments we have made reflect our dedication to our hometown.”

Other additions to the contract include Comcast working with the School District on tech curriculum and a goal of hiring 50 to 100 students from the District’s Career and Technical Education program, as well as a promise to pay Comcast workers prevailing wage (about $12.50/hour, lower than the $15/hour that activists lobbied for).

Click here for an executive summary and a link to the full text of the bill.

One organization that didn’t make out as well as it had hoped for was PhillyCAM, the community video organization. Under the new agreement, it will receive, annually, about $100,000 less than the previous franchise agreement, said PhillyCAM’s Gretjen Clausing. That’ll mean cutting its staff and programs in the coming years.

“It’s not a really happy ending for a 27-year battle,” Clausing said, referring to the fact that activists fought for nearly three decades to get funding for PhillyCAM through the Comcast franchise.

The negotiation process, which has taken the better part of a year, has been grueling, not least of all for lead city negotiator Adel Ebeid, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer who had it especially hard during Council’s marathon, seven-hour hearing last month.

“For the last six months, this has been my life,” Ebeid said to us earlier this week. “Not pretty.”

But at yesterday’s hearing, he seemed satisfied with the contract: “This truly represents the best deal that the City of Philadelphia can get at this time,” he said to Council.

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