As Comcast deal nears, public looks to service and access

As Comcast deal nears, public looks to service and access

Comcast —its customer service, the taxes it pays, its funding of public access channels and the services it provides public schools —was the subject of seven hours of testimony on Thursday as Philadelphia and the cable giant prepare to renew its deal to provide cable in the city.

Comcast, one of the city’s largest private employers and the source of hundreds of millions of dollars in recent construction activity, faced off aginst customers who complained about high prices and poor service. Media activists who want Comcast to make broadband access more accessible and provide more funding for public access television also weighed in at Thursday’s city council hearing.

The cable provider rewnews its contract in the city once-every-15-years.

Under the deal, the city would allow the cable company to run wires over public easements. In exchange, the city would get a 5 percent franchise fee, and whatever concessions it can extract.

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“If we don’t have competition in Philly, this is where we have to put our pressure,” said Hannah Sassaman, of the Media Mobilizing Project, one of the groups that has pressured and criticized the cable company over its internet offerings to low income residents.

Comcast representatives pointed to the considerable benefits the city receives by being the cable giant’s hometown. Comcast said it employs 8,000 people in Philadelphia. Construction of its new office tower will generate 20,000 jobs and $1.73 billion in economic activity. In all, the company said it has paid $100 million in school taxes between 2008 and 2014.

“Today, we are the only Fortune 50 company headquartered in Philadelphia,” said Kathleen Sullivan, Comcast Vice President of Government Affairs. “Our impact is felt deeply in the fabric of Philadelphia both from an economic standpoint and from our extensive commitments to the local community.”

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But education activists point out that it’s new office towers don’t pay property taxes under a new 10-year tax abatement program for new construction —a tax break that deprives the underfunded School District of Philadelphia of revenue.

Hillary Linardopoulos, a representative of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, pointed to schools with outdated computers and broken heating systems.

“And yet, Comcast thrives. It expands,” Linadoupoulos said, who was set to give testimony at Thursday’s hearing.

A coalition of education activists have been pushing for Comcast to expand technology investment in schools.

Sassaman’s group in particular is hoping Comcast will remove a 90-day waiting period for low income people who already have cable to sign up for the company’s Internet Essentials program, which offers web access for low-income families.

The laundry list of what speakers are seeking is long.

Under the current deal being debated, Comcast has pledged to beef up customer service, and provide discounts if cable outages last more than 24 hours. It will provide $18 million in funding for public access channels. Comcast will also provide Internet access to over 200 locations across the city.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez said the final terms of the deal are still being negotiated.

The council planned to vote on it by the end of the year, she said.