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Council to Comcast: More is required from you in franchise renewal bill

A City Council committee asked Comcast to agree to enhanced customer services and employee pay for the bill’s passage.

Comcast’s outlook must include better customer service and higher wages if it expects Council to renew its franchise agreement.
Comcast’s outlook must include better customer service and higher wages if it expects Council to renew its franchise agreement.Read moreYONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

A CITY COUNCIL committee had breaking news for Comcast yesterday: The company has to agree to pay employees higher wages and expand customer service in exchange for Council to renew its 15-year franchise agreement.

Specifically, the committee asked Comcast to agree to expand access to its Internet Essentials service for low-income families, to increase technical education opportunities for school district students, and to pay employees - including those who work for contractors and subcontractors - at least $15 an hour.

The Committee on Public Property and Public Works heard public testimony yesterday from Comcast customers to gauge what they believed should be included in the franchise agreement, which will replace a pact that has already expired. (City and Comcast officials testified during a daylong meeting last month.)

Most who spoke blasted Comcast as greedy, and accused it of falling short of providing adequate services and fair prices for low-income people and school students, despite the company receiving lucrative city tax breaks and subsidies.

"We need Council to fight now, today, for Comcast to expand affordable Internet to every home in the city as part of this franchise. We need Council to fight now, today, for Comcast to pay its fair share to technology education in our public schools," testified Nina Fay, who described herself as the parent of a school student and a teacher.

"Our hope is that conversations will continue and that we can resolve the outstanding issues. If negotiations stall or stop, we won't have an agreement this year," Councilman Bobby Henon, the committee chairman, said after the hearing in City Hall.

The committee will reconvene tomorrow morning to vote before Council's weekly meeting. If the committee approves the bill, the first reading of the legislation will take place during Council's meeting, paving the way for a second reading and final vote Dec. 10, which is Council's final meeting of the year.

If officials from the city and Comcast cannot reach agreement on the committee's demands, however, the two-year negotiating process will have to begin anew next year.

"We're going to do our best in the next 48 hours. Everybody involved wants to make this happen. It's just a matter of aligning motives and making sure that we can meet what's being asked in a short time frame," Adel Ebeid, the city's chief innovation officer, said after leaving the committee meeting.

Jeff Alexander, Comcast spokesman, declined to say if the company would agree to the committee's demands.

"We feel optimistic. We're looking forward to the next chapter on Thursday. That's all I can tell you at this point," said Alexander, who added that customer service would not be affected if no deal was reached.

Later, Alexander emailed the Daily News a statement regarding the Internet Essentials program, which provides reduced-cost service to low-income families with school-age children.

City negotiators - previously - and the committee asked that the program be expanded to low-income seniors, veterans and the disabled, and that the policy requiring current customers to discontinue service for 90 days before being allowed to receive the low-cost program be scrapped.

"I don't like to draw lines in the sand, it's not my style. . . . [But] if that 90-day turn off is not eliminated, I have trouble voting for this," committee member Bill Greenlee said, drawing applause from the audience.

Committee member Cindy Bass said the 90-day policy penalizes the poor and is "a nonstarter" that "makes absolutely no sense."

Comcast, during a public hearing last month, committed only to including seniors in the Internet Essentials program, but thus far has not budged on including others or ending the 90-day policy.

Internet Essentials was "specifically designed to provide access to those who were not already connected to the Internet," Alexander said in his email.

"More than 70,000 in the Philadelphia area have been connected through Internet Essentials and we've made 25 enhancements to make IE more accessible," Alexander wrote.

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