More than a quarter of Comcast cable subscribers in Philadelphia are dissatisfied with their service, according to a long-awaited report released by the city as it prepares to negotiate a multiyear franchise agreement with the telecommunications giant.
Mayor Nutter said the city will press Comcast Corp. to improve those numbers, and will seek a dramatic increase in broadband access across the city. Specifically, he called for Comcast to provide free broadband in underserved neighborhoods and high-speed broadband capacity at libraries and other key locations.
"We will negotiate hard," Nutter said. "We know how to negotiate hard."
Comcast regional senior vice president LeAnn Talbot quickly took issue with the report, calling the findings flawed. "We will prove that to the city," she said.
The city's four franchise agreements with Comcast, covering different areas, will expire between August and October. The 15-year contracts, which allow the company to access the public right of way for installation of cable wires, are nonexclusive. Other providers, including Verizon FiOS and satellite-TV companies, compete with Comcast throughout the city. The cable giant has two million customers in the region, including South Jersey.
Last year, Philadelphia received $17.5 million in franchising fees from Comcast, 5 percent of the company's cable-TV revenue within the city, municipal officials said.
Thursday's report was nearly two years in the making. More than 3,200 people filled out paper and online surveys compiled by CBG Communications Inc. of Paoli.
In a statistical survey, an additional 800 people - half of them subscribers - were interviewed by phone. Twenty-six percent reported some level of dissatisfaction, with about half of those listing rates as their largest concern. Customers also listed service interruptions and programming choices as drawbacks.
Cost was the largest factor for those who had chosen not to sign up with Comcast and for former customers who chose to leave, the survey found.
Among the recommendations in the 571-page report:
Reining in the cost of cable service and developing more affordable packages.
Retaining all 12 public, educational and governmental access channels and upgrading them to high definition.
Improving technical operations, which could benefit both subscriber satisfaction and call volumes.
Requiring stronger customer service standards.
Nutter said he supported all the recommendations. He added his broadband requests to the list, but said he would not disclose the city's negotiation strategy in more detail.
Talbot, in a statement, said the company's relationship with Philadelphia had never been stronger. But she said many of the report findings were "inaccurate, overstated or misleading."
Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander said CBG used flawed methodology by basing the findings on the recollections of customers.
For example, 15 percent of those polled recalled getting a busy signal when calling customer service. Comcast's own records show that number is actually less than half of 1 percent, Alexander said.
Alexander said CBG also did not ask Comcast to provide its own data.
"We would have provided objective, verifiable data connected to customer service standards, delivery of services, system monitoring, reliability, and more," he said.
Mark McDonald, Nutter's spokesman, dismissed the company's assertion that the findings were flawed.
"The fact is, 26 percent of the survey respondents found flaws" with Comcast," he said. "So if they want to talk about flaws. . . ."
Nutter also announced the city will expand its Cable Franchise Authority, hiring three or four employees, who will provide a report on Comcast's progress one year after the new franchise agreement is signed and every two years after that.
As it heads to negotiations, Nutter said, the city is seeking more feedback from residents and will hold public forums beginning this month. City Council also plans to hold a series of hearings.
Hannah Sassaman of the Media Mobilizing Project, a West Philadelphia community nonprofit that focuses on economic and media issues, stressed the need for public input.
"This should be a public process where thousands of Philadelphians get to negotiate directly with the company that they need to get their Internet from," she said. "It's like water. It's like air. It's like gas. This is a human right in our society."