Philly Gets Comcast To Agree To Better Franchise Terms; Now Seattle Wants Them, Too

After a tense year of negotiations, the city of Philadelphia and one of its biggest corporate residents, Comcast, finally came to a new agreement over a cable franchise. The terms of the new 15-year contract are generally good news for Philadelphians, but now Comcast customers on the other side of the country are demanding that they get treated better, too.

To back up: A franchise agreement is what gives cable the right, generally, to become an all-powerful local monopoly — but also the responsibility, sometimes, to make sure everyone in the area has access. For decades, those agreements have seemed almost etched in stone. The contracts are 10 or 15 years long and renewing them feels basically inevitable. And usually, the local monopoly gets its way. Thanks to the history of franchises, competition in the cable and broadband space is basically nonexistent, so there isn’t usually that much leverage for a city or county to use to push back.

Until recently, anyway.

Comcast has never exactly been beloved or popular, but during the year they tried and failed to buy Time Warner Cable, the general simmering pot of distaste boiled over into something like a tidal wave of negativity. And the cities that have franchise agreements up for renewal in this window have started taking the opportunity to require Comcast to, well, do more and suck less.

Philadelphia, where Comcast has its corporate headquarters, pushed hard for better terms when its turn to renew the franchise agreement came up this year. The city and the cable giant spent more than eight months in negotiations before a new agreement finally made it to the city council last week.

The terms that Philadelphia and Comcast have agreed on include many more outreach programs to help lower-income residents, as well as improvements to customer service, Philadelphia Magazine reports. As part of the agreement, the city will get the maximum franchise fee of 5% of all the gross revenues from Comcast’s cable service, which right now is more than $17 million annually. Comcast will also increase funding for public, educational, and government access programs as well as upgrade the technology in over 200 city buildings at no cost. The company everyone loves to hate is also being held to specific customer service standards with regards to service appointments and outages, with fairly stiff (although a drop in the bucket, for Comcast) penalties for noncompliance.

Comcast is also being required to provide education to high school seniors, provide some graduates with jobs, and meet Philadelphia’s living wage and prevailing wage rules. And last but not least, the city is requiring that Comcast drop one of the most onerous requirements for low-income families to enrolling in the Internet Essentials program, and will be included on the pilot program to expand eligibility to senior citizens — as well as any other pilot program that Comcast conducts with Internet Essentials in the future.

In Philadelphia the concessions are all but a done deal; the city council and mayor will hold a full vote on the agreement tomorrow, Dec. 10.

That’s great for the city and its residents, but Philly isn’t the only major metro renegotiating their terms this year. Over on the West coast, all eyes are watching the negotiations Comcast went through with its hometown… and now they’re saying, “wait… what about us?”

The city of Seattle spent 2015 negotiating its own new 10-year agreement with Comcast. They were due to sit down and sign the contract on Monday, Dec. 7, but city representatives put a hold on the agreement when they heard about the terms Philadelphia was getting and demanded some improvements of their own.

Local network KIRO reports that Comcast had already promised Seattle 600 free connections for nonprofits, $8 million in support for public, education, or government channels, free service to government and school buildings, and access to Internet Essentials. As compared to the Philadelphia deal, though, that leaves a lot of Seattle residents out in the digital cold.

So, as the Seattle Times reports, city officials sent a letter to Comcast demanding a deal more like Philly’s… and they won. During weekend negotiations, Comcast agreed to include Seattle’s seniors in the Internet Essentials expansion pilot, as well as to increase a city grant for narrowing the digital divide tenfold, from $50,000 to $500,000.

City officials are exploring how to create an enforcement mechanism, to hold Comcast to the agreement, before reconvening to revisit the contract on Dec. 14.

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