Philadelphia City Council hopeful for ‘platinum’ franchise deal with Comcast

 Comcast headquarters is shown in Center City, Philadelphia. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

Comcast headquarters is shown in Center City, Philadelphia. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

Advocates, educators and City Council members plan a rally Friday afternoon at City Hall in an attempt to pressure Comcast into providing more support for Philadelphia public schools.

The rally takes place as City Council awaits a proposed Comcast franchise deal from city officials, who have been quietly negotiating with the cable/Internet giant all summer, and who plan to share a recommended final deal with Council members sometime in October.

Hannah Sassaman of the Media Mobilizing Project, which helped organize Friday’s rally, said the city should set its sights high, despite Comcast’s assertion that franchise negotiations can only involve cable services, not Internet and other digital products.

“Cities around the country from Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington, to Portland, Oregon, have been able to win things like this in franchise negotiations, when the public has had a seat at the table, and when elected officials have stood up strong for consumers and for public institutions like libraries and schools,” Sassaman said.

Councilman Bobby Henon calls Comcast a “good partner” for Philadelphia. But he thinks the city’s new franchise deal — a fee paid by Comcast in exchange for access to city streets and other public infrastructure — could help it become a great partner.

“We could do better as a first-class city. We could do better with them in their home town,” said, Henon, who chairs the committee on public property that would host any Council hearings on the franchise deal.

“I think we have the opportunity to set a platinum agreement here. Technology has changed over the last 15 years, and we want to make sure our concerns are heard by the negotiating team,” he said.

Henon said that among his concerns is the need for faster and more-affordable Internet services citywide.

“It no longer a privilege — it’ s a necessity,” he said. “You have senior citizens ordering prescriptions and making doctor’s appointments online. You have people who are unemployed looking for job opportunities. It’s a necessity, as a tool.”

Sassaman and other advocates have also called for stronger consumer protections, more support for public access channels, and improvements to the city’s aging data network. Many of the same recommendations were made in an independent consultant’s report, commissoned by the Nutter administration and released last spring.

But while the city has said from the start that it planned to fight hard for a deal that addresses city residents’ concerns about the cost and quality of Comcast services, both Nutter administration officials and Comcast have been quiet about the summer’s talks.

“I’m not in a position to say anything about the ongoing negotiations, but I can recall for you that Mayor Nutter has instructed his negotiation team to negotiate the best deal possible for the city,” said Nutter’s spokesman Mark MacDonald in a statement today. “We continue to meet and negotiate with Comcast for the best deal possible under the FCC guidelines for cable franchise.”

Comcast officials were similarly tight-lipped on details, but spokesman Jeff Alexander called the summer’s negotiations a “productive process.”

How much of a public airing the proposed deal will get in Council is not yet clear. Henon said hearings have been authorized but not scheduled. If Council members don’t like what they see when the administration presents its proposal next month, he said, it could schedule public meetings to help influence the final agreement.

“We’re going to use that as a tool if negotiations stall,” Henon said. “But my understanding is that negotiations are ongoing and continuing, and we look forward to the process.”

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