Philly protesters want ‘sides’ to dress up ‘turkey’ of deal with Comcast

 Hannah Sassaman of CAP Comcast leads a rally outside Comcast's Center City headquarters. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Hannah Sassaman of CAP Comcast leads a rally outside Comcast's Center City headquarters. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

When Philadelphia City Council revealed a rough draft of its new franchise agreement with Comcast last week, both the city and the cable giant emphasized the progress made. Now, a coalition of community activists is pushing for an even better deal, calling the current one a “turkey.”

At a rally outside Comcast headquarters in Center City Thursday, the group known as CAP Comcast (which stands for Corporate Accountability Project) listed its demands.

In exchange for giving the company access to public streets to provide cable TV and Internet service for another 15 years, the coalition wants Comcast to pay an estimated $35 million for a dedicated technology teacher in each of Philadelphia’s 218 traditional public schools and new computers for hundreds of thousands of students. 

“Comcast makes $8 billion in profits, and they make that in part because they don’t pay school property taxes,” said retired middle school science teacher Ron Whitehorne with the group Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools. The company’s current and future towers benefit from Philadelphia’s 10-year tax abatement, which is offered to many new projects.

“So what’s in it for them is to show they can be a good corporate citizen,” Whitehorne said.

The coalition also wants Comcast to expand its offerings for low-income residents. Critics say its Internet Essentials program, designed for poor families with school-aged children, does not do enough for the city’s most underserved populations. Veterans and seniors are not eligible for the existing program, and there are certain barriers to entry. For example, families with overdue Comcast bills cannot participate. And low-income families who are already Comcast customers must cancel their full-rate service for 90 days before enrolling in Internet Essentials.

“They create so many barriers to keep the poor man from being able to get the resources that we need,” said China Livingston with the group ACTION United.

The bill introduced by City Councilman Bobby Henon last week already addresses some of these issues.

“I don’t think it’s a final agreement, but I think it’s a good start,” said Henon. “There are still issues that some Council members would like to talk about.”

Council members are considering additional amendments, such as eliminating waiting periods for low-income residents who qualify for Internet Essentials and additional funding to compensate teachers who’ve been taking time to teach their students technology skills for free. Many of these items will not likely be included in the final franchise agreement, but rather in a separate settlement agreement or “side letter.” 

Comcast declined to comment on the negotiations.

At the end of the rally, Whitehorne handed a roasted turkey to a Comcast security guard, a symbol of the coalition’s contention that the current deal is a “turkey” for Philadelphia’s schools and low-income residents, and asked him to deliver it to Senior Executive Vice President David L. Cohen. The guard took the turkey inside the Comcast Center building, along with Whitehorne’s roasting pan. It’s unclear whether it ever made it up to Cohen’s office. 

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