Seattle officials, poised to approve a 10-year franchise agreement with Comcast, got a look at a new discount program for low-income households in Philadelphia and plan to hold out for the same kind of commitment here.
Seattle officials want the same brotherly love Comcast is giving to Philadelphia.
Mayor Ed Murray and City Councilmember Bruce Harrell sent a letter to the giant cable company Friday saying the City Council won’t approve a new cable-franchise agreement for Comcast in Seattle until the city gets what Philadelphia is getting.
The council was scheduled to vote Monday on a new 10-year cable television franchise for Comcast; Harrell’s technology committee gave the deal a green light this week.
Then, Thursday night, Philadelphia officials announced a new 15-year agreement with Comcast. The deal includes a major expansion of the company’s Internet discount program for low-income households and other benefits not promised to Seattle.
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Comcast’s corporate headquarters are in Philadelphia.
“We were disappointed to learn of the franchise agreed to between Comcast and the city of Philadelphia,” reads the letter from Murray and Harrell to the company’s regional vice president of government affairs. “Having seen the commitment toward equity and affordability in Philadelphia, we believe the people of Seattle deserve the same level of commitment.”
Walter Neary, spokesman for Comcast in Seattle, said the company is open to talks.
“Comcast believes that the current agreement as approved by the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee offers numerous benefits to consumers, meeting and exceeding those offered by our competitors in Seattle,” he said in an email Friday. “We respect the City’s desire to discuss different alternatives and we are open to additional dialogue.”
In their letter, Murray and Harrell say the city will hold off granting Comcast a new franchise “until Seattle’s agreement is significantly improved.”
They say they’ve directed the Seattle Department of Information Technology “to work with your team to identify additional opportunities to lower the cost of Comcast’s Internet service for those with low incomes, thus increasing Internet access, and to identify opportunities to further enhance digital equity in our city.”
In order to install equipment and provide services, cable companies must use public rights of way. Franchise agreements between the city and the companies set out the terms and conditions under which the city allows that to happen. Seattle currently has three cable-franchise agreements, with Comcast, CenturyLink and Wave.
The Comcast agreement expires Jan. 20, 2016. The proposed new agreement, a product of months of negotiations, would require the company to continue several community benefits it provides Seattle now, including free cable service to city buildings and schools, $50,000 per year for the Seattle Channel, discounted cable service for low-income subscribers and free Internet service to qualifying nonprofits.
In conjunction with its proposed Comcast agreement, Seattle also would get discounted Internet for low-income households with children. But Philadelphia will get discounted Internet for low-income seniors and Internet subsidies for households without children, as well, and other benefits not offered to the Emerald City.
“Earlier this week, we thought we had negotiated a pretty good franchise with Comcast in light of a competitive, changing regulatory environment,” said Michael Mattmiller, Seattle’s chief technology officer. “We still think we have a good franchise, better than those negotiated by Portland and Denver in recent years.”
Mattmiller added: “It’s when we saw the Philadelphia agreement that we learned Comcast is doing better in some other communities right now.”
Upgrade Seattle activists have been pushing city officials this year to treat Internet like a public utility by launching a municipal broadband network.
But Mattmiller put a damper on that possibility in June when the city released a feasibility study and the council’s budget committee voted last month against funding a $5 million municipal-broadband pilot program.
The Murray administration has instead focused on reducing regulatory barriers and promoting competition, Mattmiller said. In February, the mayor and council eliminated a section of city law that restricted cable companies to specific geographic districts and required them to serve every neighborhood in those districts.
One result has been CenturyLink and Wave moving into new parts of the city. Comcast remains the biggest player in the market, but CenturyLink’s Prism TV is now available to more than 114,000 Seattle households, according to the company. Its Gigabit Internet service is available to more than 130,000, the company said.
Prices have yet to come down, but Comcast has stepped up its service in response, Mattmiller said.
“We recognize that Philadelphia is Comcast’s hometown and that Comcast has a large presence there. But when we think about Internet being the essential utility of our time, that’s why we need that same level of access,” he said.
In an interview Wednesday, before the Murray and Harrell letter, Sabrina Roach of Upgrade Seattle called the community benefits in Seattle’s proposed agreement inadequate and said Comcast’s discounted services are subpar.