Business / Communications / Municipal government

Could the new Comcast contract actually make low-cost internet more accessible in Philadelphia?

At the second City Council hearing for Comcast's 15-year franchise agreement, advocates and Council finally seemed to find their focus: expanding affordable internet.

Rev. Greg Holston speaks at a rally before the second City Council hearing for the Comcast franchise agreement. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)
Full disclosure: Comcast was the title sponsor of Philly Tech Week 2015, which was organized by's events team.
Comcast’s 15-year franchise hearing at City Council, round two. Tuesday. We were sitting in City Council chambers, but it might have been a place of worship.

There were rituals, like when every Councilperson spoke at the end of the hearing and made it a point to thank Councilman Bobby Henon for his work on the issue; appeals to morality, as several people, testifying before Council, asked Comcast to do the “right” thing; and perhaps most of all, faith. Faith, some testified, that the city’s elected officials would stand up for the people.
After six months of negotiations, the city is likely to finalize Comcast’s 15-year contract in the coming days, and though Philadelphians had several chances to speak their minds throughout the process, the final call belongs to Council. The contract only becomes real once Council approves it, and time is running out. Either Council votes on the bill by next Thursday, the body’s last meeting of the year, or it’ll be up to the new Kenney administration to handle the matter next year.
Lost? Read our explainer on the Comcast franchise talks
Several of the activists who took the witness stand yesterday seemed keenly aware of this. That it would soon be out of their hands, that it was Council in which they had to trust.
“Fight for us,” said Rev. Gregory Holston, addressing Council. “Fight for us.”

Hannah Sassaman, the Media Mobilizing Project organizer who has been the leader of the Comcast accountability movement, appealed to Council’s ego: You could build the strongest franchise in the United States, she said. You could set a precedent.

comcast council

Kati Sipp (left, in red) of Pennsylvania Working Families testifies before Council. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)

There was a different tone to this hearing, which featured 14 speakers and was significantly shorter than the first public hearing last month. It felt like activists, as well as Council, were starting to find their focus.

One major issue with the advocacy around the franchise talks was that it seemed to be all over the place. Advocates were fighting for a whole mess of things from expanding low-cost internet to $15/hour for Comcast workers to funding for tech in schools to lower cable prices to overturning Comcast’s property tax abatement.

It makes sense: Comcast is many things to many people.

But it also made the battle seem hopeless at times. If advocates couldn’t organize around a few clear asks, would the people in power really get the message?

Yet Tuesday morning in Council chambers, it sounded like they — the public and those in power — were all finally hearing each other.

(Another thing that made that easier? Henon asked that Comcast not testify that morning. “Quite frankly, we’ve heard a lot from them,” he said. Still, two posters on Comcast’s impact on Philadelphia remained next to the Councilpeople, and several Comcast staffers, like spokespeople and government affairs employees, sat in the audience.)

The issue that rose to the top that morning centered around making Comcast’s low-cost Internet Essentials more accessible, specifically a clause that says that in order to be eligible for the service, you can’t have had Comcast service for 90 days. That, advocates argued, essentially means that anyone who has been trying to afford standard Comcast service has to shut off their internet for 90 days before they can get the low-cost option.

“My daughter cannot go 90 days without doing her homework,” said Malique Diarra of Southwest Philadelphia. “I cannot go 90 days without paying my bills.”
Activists hammered on that one issue and by the end of the hearing, each Councilperson present said that the 90-day window had to go.
“It is essential that that 90-day turnoff period be eliminated,” said Councilman Bill Greenlee, who added that he would have trouble voting in favor of the bill if it weren’t.
Waiting 90 days to get internet service “suggests access to a luxury and not access to a necessity,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass.
The 90-day window is “a business model,” said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, “and one we disagree on.”
A Comcast spokeswoman said that the 90-day window is a requirement all across the country and one that has to do with reaching Internet Essentials’ target market: those who do not have access to the internet. She added that Comcast has made a number of upgrades to the service, including most recently, upping speeds to 10 megabits per second and piloting the service for senior citizens and students in community college.
The proposed Comcast contract with the city includes expanding Internet Essentials to include seniors. (A previous version of the contract said that veterans and people with disabilities would also be eligible but that has since changed. Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander told the Inquirer that Comcast never agreed to expand the service beyond seniors.)
Will Council use its clout to kill the 90-day window? Should Philadelphia have faith? We’ll see how it plays out Thursday morning. It’s in their hands now.

Companies: Philadelphia City Council / Comcast / Media Mobilizing Project

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