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Could Comcast franchise negotiations fall to next mayor?

City officials are currently in negotiations with Comcast to renew a lucrative 15-year franchise agreement that grants the television and broadband provider the right to sell its cable services to Philadelphians.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the franchise rights are non-exclusive and only for cable television service.

City officials are currently in negotiations with Comcast to renew a lucrative 15-year franchise agreement that grants the television and broadband provider the right to sell its cable services to Philadelphians.

The Nutter administration has steered these talks for months, but the terms of the final agreement might be set by the next mayor.

"In October, the city of Philadelphia will deliver a draft of the deal. But this could go to the next administration," said Hannah Jane Sassaman of the Media Mobilizing Project, a group that has sought to influence the renewal process.

The Media Mobilizing Project has lobbied city politicians for more generous terms than the previous agreement signed in 1998. In exchange for the non-exclusive use of public rights-of-way — like the ground under city streets and sidewalks — to run its cables, Comcast currently gives the city public access channels and a small portion of the profits it makes off its services.

So far, Nutter and many city council members have joined the group in calling for Comcast to commit to expanding broadband access in lower-income communities, along with other improvements to the agreement, like expanding the city's Cable Franchise Authority to have more oversight powers.

But Sassaman said the telecommunications giant, which has similar agreements in nearly 6,400 other US cities, has a history of deliberately dragging its feet to forestall more punitive arrangements.

She specifically noted a similar negotiation over franchising rights in St. Paul, Minn.

"That thing was on the back burner for four years," Sassaman said of Philadelphia's largest company. "Their tactic is to delay."

According to federal law, if a new contract isn't finalized by the time the current agreement expires, the terms of the 1998 agreement stay in effect until a deal is reached. This has already happened — the city's franchise contract is broken into four separate legal documents that cover different sections of Philadelphia and have slightly different expiration dates. The first expired on Aug. 12; the rest will end between now and mid-October.

The city has said it will not reveal the status of negotiations and Comcast would not comment.

City Council ultimately votes on any final agreement, but a spokesperson for Councilman Bobby Henon, who submitted an informational request to Comcast last week regarding franchise rights, said for now they are simply "waiting to see how the negotiations are going."

"The hope is we're going to hold hearings in the fall," said Eric Horvath, Henon's communications director.

Horvath also said council members were potentially looking to hold a series of meetings for public input. That would leave only a few short weeks for council to consider the deal, hold public meetings, and vote before legislative recess in mid-December, after which a new mayoral administration would take over negotiations.

Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney's campaign acknowledged it had least considered the possibility of being in the driver's seat, but hinted that they would follow a course similar to the Nutter administration's.

"If the negotiations are not completed by the end of Mayor Nutter's term and Jim is elected mayor, then a Kenney administration will prioritize a deal that brings high-quality resources to under-served communities and constituents in our city," said Kenney's spokesperson, Lauren Hitt.

Kenney had previously expressed support for expanding Comcast's subsidized broadband plan for low-income families, known as Internet Essentials.

Sources close to the campaign said that they were being told by officials that negotiations should largely be concluded by the end of the year. However, they also indicated that they expected to receive a report this week from the Nutter administration outlining issues that were unlikely to be resolved by the end of 2015.

Kenney's Republican challenger, Melissa Murray Bailey, did not respond to a request for comment.