With Philly vote set on franchise deal, Comcast might soon manage all city’s data

 Philadelphia's Comcast Tower (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia's Comcast Tower (Emma Lee/WHYY)

With the vote on a new Comcast franchise scheduled for Thursday, Philadelphia City Council is poised to usher in what it hopes will be a new era of low-cost Internet and improved customer service for thousands of Philadelphians.

At the same time, the Council also will quietly create a new role for Comcast at the heart of municipal government — handing the cable giant the job of building and managing all of the city’s data networks.

“It’s important to put it in Winston Churchill’s context,” said Lance Haver, Council’s consumer advocate. “He said democracy is the worst form of government, until you look at all the others.”

Haver called the current proposal “the best agreement in the country.” It may be less than ideal in certain respects, he said, but it still features a range of programs and commitments that could help Philadelphians of every income level cross the digital divide.

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Hannah Jane Sassaman of the Media Mobilization Project, which helped spearhead public advocacy around new franchise agreement, called it a “massive, unprecedented expansion of affordable Internet.”

The proposed franchise — a 15-year deal giving the company access to public infrastructure including streets and telephone poles -– calls on Comcast to not only pay the city an annual franchise fee, but also provide more low-cost Internet, more public access channels and more local job training. The company has also agreed to hire 150 or more service representatives to address local customer needs.

And while those aspects of the deal have been widely praised and publicized — in Seattle, officials have torn up their existing Comcast franchise proposal and demanded terms more like Philadelphia’s — officials have said relatively little about the data-management plans.

Nonetheless, the basic idea is simple: Comcast builds a new network, and then the city pays Comcast to run it.

New network would link 200 city buildings

The company has committed to spending $9 million on the new network linking more than 200 city buildings. Officials promise dramatic increases in speed and Wi-Fi availability.

And while they’ve said that they expect to save about $50,000 a month in network costs under the new deal, Haver said that in the long run, it’s not clear what the city will be paying the cable giant to operate the new network.

“I don’t know if that is knowable, because we don’t know how we’re going to use the system yet,” said Haver. “Every one of these 225 locations can become a Wi-Fi hot spot. That means we can help kids with their homework, we can help seniors with their doctor’s appointments … As we learn to use this tool, of course, we’ll use it more. But we have to expect that the more use we have, the higher the cost.”

The proposal before Council contains some details. Among other things, the company commits to providing high-speed fiber connecting rec centers, libraries, health centers, fire and police stations.

Comcast promises enough “redundancies” to minimize service drops, along with “recurring monthly cost that results in significant annual savings from current costs.” A million dollars has been earmarked to upgrade the system in its seventh year.

The proposed franchise also includes penalties and fines should the network underperform. “There are teeth in the deal,” said Sassaman.

But city officials did not respond to a request for comment on further information, such as what exactly the anticipated cost to the city will be; how the $50,000 monthly savings figure was calculated; and how Comcast plans to calculate year-to-year costs.

Comcast officials, meanwhile, referred all questions to the city.

Data network would be Comcast’s largest

They did confirm that Philadelphia’s data network – known as an institutional network or I-Net – would be the largest municipal network that Comcast has run. Similar networks are in place in Wilmington, Delaware, and St. Paul, Minnesota, where Comcast recently settled a lawsuit spurred by allegations of poor network performance and problems with public access channel payments.

And while little has been said publicly, data management is clearly an important part of the overall Philadelphia franchise deal. A clause in the proposal before the Council says that if Comcast doesn’t manage the city’s data, the company won’t deliver the promised increases in funding for public access channels.

Such funding “is conditioned upon the city entering into the network services agreement and such agreement remaining in effect,” the proposal says.

Haver said he believes the city got as good a deal as could be expected – one that will help residents in tangible ways, and prove itself worth the expense.

“The city believes that this will actually lower our costs,” he said. “We know it will be better, we know it will be faster, and we hope to make the greatest use of it to make our services more efficient.”

And Sassaman said that if problems do arise, the momentum gained throughout the franchise negotiation will help keep the pressure on Comcast to deliver quality services and meet the franchise agreeement’s new performance targets.

“Everyone in Philadelphia [has] re-evaluated how they look at Comcast as a corporate citizen,” Sassaman said. “We’re going to continue to see people working every day to hold Comcast accountable.”

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