April 15, 2024

How Philadelphia used its franchise agreement with Comcast to achieve better Internet access for everyone

A local coalition successfully achieved greater free and affordable Internet access, greater improvements in customer service, and more protections for cable and Internet workers.

How did Internet operators like Spectrum come to dominate service in New York City, while others like Xfinity reign supreme in cities like Minneapolis? While residents are familiar with the major internet providers in their cities, they are less familiar with the deals that got them there.

Across the country, Internet access often reaches homes through public right-of-way — the boundaries of privately owned land under which public lines are placed. Utility providers of everything from water to electricity to the Internet use these lines to provide their services to customers.

To use these public lines, Internet providers from Comcast to Cox enter into franchise agreements with local governments. These deals give internet companies access to thousands or millions of customers, depending on the size of the city, and lay out what they will offer in return, such as free and publicly accessible hotspots.

And, as Philadelphia activists realized, these agreements can be negotiated to help close the digital divide for residents.

In 2013, the Philadelphia-based company Movement Alliance Project (MAP) received a notice from a friend of the organization who had accepted a job in the city. This person explained that he was close to renewing the franchise agreement between Comcast and the city, which is renewed every 15 years.

MAP’s work focuses on community organizing for strategic social change; The world of telecommunications was new to them and their then policy director, Hannah Sassaman. However, they saw an opportunity to make a big difference in the lives of Philadelphians and took advantage of it, launching what became CAP Comcast, which stands for Corporate Responsibility Project.

By organizing communities and lobbying city leaders, two years later, when When the franchise agreement was renewed, the coalition won important victories in the form of expanded access to free and affordable Internet, greater improvements in customer service, and more protections for cable and Internet workers.

“We had a particular interest in this for a number of reasons,” explains Sassaman, who is currently the executive director of the People’s Tech Project, an initiative sponsored by MAP. “First of all, Comcast, a Fortune 50 company, is also headquartered here.”

Plus, he says, Philadelphia was getting what Sassaman says were “some of the most expensive [rates] for the lowest customer service in the city which, at the time, had the third-worst broadband penetration of any city in the country; “mostly low-income black communities did not have access to broadband.”

After learning the power and possibilities of the city’s franchise agreement with the telecommunications giant, MAP set out to do what it does best: leverage its long-standing community relationships with everyone from taxi drivers and firefighters to community groups like LA21, a nonprofit organization serving the small business community of West Philadelphia, a predominantly Black neighborhood designated as a federal Promise Zone.

“People were pretty clear that they hated their service,” Sassaman says, and that Comcast wasn’t paying its fair share of taxes thanks to a 10-year reduction by the city. The community conversations MAP had focused on the impact technology has on the things that matter to Philadelphians.

“We weren’t there selling this. We were saying that we know that your children need to connect to the Internet, that they need Internet access to get a job, that public access television is one of the few things that really tells our stories responsibly, and that this is a unique opportunity. opportunity for a generation to fight for it,” she says.

MAP and other community members showed up at city council meeting after city council meeting to air their grievances and detail their demands. “We told their stories to the city council members, the mayor and the technology office and we made a big difference,” Sassaman says.

The same happened with the city lobbying to make public the results of a third-party survey on Comcast’s performance, which obtained National news coverage. The city finally shared the grim findings detailing prolonged service outages, average monthly bills of more than $150, and “five times the number of busy signals required by regulations when users attempt to contact customer service.”

While Sassaman says his efforts resulted in major improvements to franchise agreements in the form of “something like 12 different, means-tested ways for people to qualify for different services and [Comcast] offering internships for public school students,” they did not get everything they demanded, like the company that provided a computer to every child in the city.

Both Sassaman and Jackie Williams, LA21’s chief operating officer, say that, looking back, they would have done things differently knowing what they know now.

“Making sure that city offices are funded as part of the agreement or having an ongoing digital inclusion effort to ensure that the city is empowered and tasked with looking at the community elements of the agreement, we didn’t do that,” Sassaman. he says.

“I wish we had really focused on how we could help small businesses get access to the Internet,” adds Williams, whose organization helped spread the CAP Comcast effort to members of his community when it was underway. “We talked about it a little, but the concern was more about the digital divide” at the individual and community level than about the business dimension.

However, there is more to it than just individual wins and losses. Sassaman sees it as a replicable model that cities and communities across the country can learn from and apply to their own franchise agreements.

“The most important thing is that communities are clear about how technology aggravates and impacts their lives,” he says.

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, US News & World Report, Rewire.news and more. She has a master’s degree in Social Design, with a concentration in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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