MORE LOW-INCOME Philadelphians will have access to affordable Internet service, while more high school students will receive high-tech job-training through Comcast's new 15-year franchise agreement, which won approval from a City Council committee yesterday.

It took the Committee on Public Property and Public Works two postponed hearings yesterday before the deal between the city and the Philadelphia-based mass media giant was hammered into shape.

The full Council will vote on the bill and accompanying side letters on Dec. 10 - its last meeting of the year.

"If this agreement is implemented the way that we have discussed, it will prove to the world that Comcast has put Philadelphia first, and that's what we want and what we demand," committee chairman Councilman Bobby Henon said.

"When you look at it in its totality, this is a historic franchise, a precedent-setting franchise which is only what Philadelphia deserves," said Hannah Sassaman, policy director for the Media Mobilizing Project, which advocates for greater media access for working-class people.

The cable television agreement - which is actually four franchises that cover the entire city - has expired but the terms are still in effect. The agreement would give Comcast the right to continue its business operations in the city.

The value of the agreement to the city is estimated at $480 million, said Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander.

That includes a $17 million franchise fee for each year of the agreement and $21.3 million for the operation of public access television channels.

"This is an unprecedented renewal and a very strong indication of our commitment to our home town," Alexander said.

"It will broaden Philadelphians' access to broadband through Internet Essentials, it will create good-paying jobs and careers and it brought creative solutions that addressed the city's requests throughout this [negotiation] process," he added.

Yesterday's positive sentiments were a far cry from the grumbling that went on during a Tuesday committee hearing, when Comcast was slammed by citizens and Council members who accused it of proposing too little for students, seniors, the poor and company employees.

The company policy requiring low-income customers to discontinue Internet service for 90 days before being allowed to receive the reduced-cost Internet Essentials service came under the heaviest criticism.

In side letter agreements approved by the committee yesterday, Comcast committed to waiving the 90-day rule for five years and, for the first time, allowing seniors and those who don't have school-aged children into the reduced-cost program. The city will subsidize part of the cost of the program's expansion.

Comcast also agreed to work with the city school district on core curricula and committed to hiring between 50 and 100 career and technical education program students annually.

The franchise agreement calls for the company to pay employees in compliance with the city's living wage ordinance and prevailing wage obligations, which is about $12.50 per hour, Henon said.

Council members on Tuesday had asked that workers be paid at least $15 an hour, but that request got modified, Henon said, because Comcast agreed to spend $10 million to construct the city a high-speed institutional network which will provide data transport to more than 200 city locations at a savings.

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