On Wednesday, the city council's technology committee approved a new 10-year franchise agreement with Comcast—basically, an accord that enumerates what the city gets in return for allowing Comcast to dig up city streets in order to provide its cable and Internet service. Council Member Bruce Harrell said the city had gotten "good results," and the mayor's office appeared happy with the negotiations. The full council was expected to approve the deal next week.
But after learning last night how many public benefits the city of Philadelphia was able to wrest from Comcast in their franchise agreement, Seattle wants takebacks. In a letter sent to Comcast today, Mayor Ed Murray and Harrell say they were "disappointed" to learn of the agreement worked out over on the East Coast—because it makes what Seattle was able to achieve look paltry by comparison.
"We were surprised last night to see Philadelphia had been more successful in getting some of those benefits," Michael Mattmiller, head of Seattle's Department of Information Technology, told me today. "I think, looking at Philadelphia, ours could be better than it is... Now, we want to go back and say, 'We want that, too.'"
Comcast made several significant concessions in Philadelphia. The company agreed to expand eligibility for its heavily discounted Internet service, called Internet Essentials, to all low-income households, including a special pilot program for low-income seniors. In Seattle and other cities, the program is only available to families whose kids are enrolled in reduced-fare lunch programs at school. And the company also agreed to get rid of an annoying requirement that anyone signing up for discounted Internet service disconnect from all Comcast service for 90 days first.
Prior to the news about the Philadelphia agreement, Mattmiller told me it was difficult to achieve public benefits in the deal because of new Federal Communications Commission rules that narrow the options that cities have to deny franchise agreements to companies like Comcast. "We’ve gotten what we think is… a fair package," he said.
But now that Philadelphia is getting more than we got, Seattle wants more. "We will hold on voting [on the franchise agreement] until Comcast is able to provide additional benefits," Mattmiller told me. "Internet is not a luxury, it's a utility. We would hope that Comcast recognizes its commitment to the Seattle community and helps increase access accordingly."
The digital equity group Upgrade Seattle, which has long pushed for the city to begin competing directly with Comcast by launching its own municipal broadband network, had criticized the new franchise agreement for not doing enough to address the digital divide. "There's only $50,000 for our City's Digital Equity Initiative," the group said. "It's disappointing that public resources go to promoting Comcast services that are subpar."
Roughly 15,000 Seattleites have no Internet access at home, according to city data, and those without reliable access tend to be poorer people and people of color.
"The Philadelphia City Council should be incredibly proud of what they have accomplished in this franchise," Upgrade Seattle said today. "It is completely right for our elected officials to tell Comcast to match what Philly is about to secure."
But, the group said, "Rather than hash this out every 10 years, we need to change the dynamic. This is about who owns the pipe. A public utility has all of this baked into its DNA. Low-income residents should not be relegated to the slow lane. Internet Essentials provides 10 mbps, which is 1 percent of the speed that we could have with our own public Internet utility."
Comcast had responded to Upgrade Seattle by citing the provisions of the franchise agreement that had been agreed to and touting its "longstanding commitment to digital equity." In the wake of the Philadelphia news, a local representative for Comcast did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
UPDATE: In a statement this evening, a Comcast spokesperson says the company "respect[s] the City's desire to discuss different alternatives and we are open to additional dialogue."