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November 12, 2015

Comcast execs laud benefits of potential franchise agreement with city

Cable giant has provided more than $750 million in direct, indirect tax revenue in last five years

Cable Comcast
Carroll - Comcast Center Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The Comcast Center

Comcast Corp. executives on Thursday touted the benefits the cable giant provides to Philadelphia during a public hearing before City Council's Committee on Public Property and Public Works, but members of community groups who attended the meeting said the company isn't doing enough.

The city of Philadelphia is finalizing a cable television franchise renewal agreement that provides Comcast access to the public rights of way to operate and deliver cable services.

A new 15-year proposal was introduced last month by Councilman Bobby Henon, who chairs the committee. The agreement is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

"Today we are the only Fortune 50 company headquartered in Philadelphia," testified Kathleen Sullivan, Comcast senior vice president of government and regulatory relations. "Over the past 50 years, Comcast has grown from just a few hundred workers to over 8,000 employees at our corporate headquarters and other locations around the city. Thousands of those Comcast employees also reside in Philadelphia."

Sullivan testified that Comcast has contributed some $750 million in direct and indirect taxes during the last five years and provided another $42 million to the School District of Philadelphia. The latter figure is expected to grow to $269 million between 2015 and 2029, the final year of the new franchise agreement.

She also heralded the benefits of a second Comcast skyscraper, currently under construction. That building, the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, will bring 2,800 permanent jobs and an estimated $21.5 million in annual tax revenue.

The proposed renewal agreement calls for Comcast to provide $18 million to fund 11 public, education and government access channels — an increase of $10 million from the last agreement. It also provides the city with 5 percent of Comcast's gross revenues from its cable services within the city, the maximum amount permitted by federal law. That equated to more than $17 million last year, Comcast executives testified.

The company reported more than $68 billion in revenue in 2014.

"Comcast has agreed to additional commitments to Philadelphia," Senior Vice President Jim Samaha testified. "These measures go well beyond the new franchise agreements, which are strictly limited by federal law to the delivery of cable television service, and reflect Comcast's commitment to the city and our customers."

Comcast has pledged to expand its discounted Internet Essentials program to eligible seniors. It also will hire 150-200 virtual call center representatives to handle Philadelphia customer service problems. The company will provide a 10 percent discount to low-income seniors in Philadelphia who subscribe only to its Digital Starter service, and make a $500,000 donation to the city for a digital inclusion fund, among other benefits.

Community organizations, clergy members and education advocates testified as well. Many in the crowd were unhappy with Comcast's contributions. People held signs calling on Comcast to fund the city's schools, protect workers' rights and put people over profit. They cheered as various speakers, including city officials and community leaders, called on Comcast to do more.

Todd O'Boyle of Common Cause testified that "far too many Philadelphians" find they have no alternative to Comcast's cable rates, despite video options that include Verizon Fios, DirectTV, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

"Is it not true that marquee sports, that are so important, are not available from all providers?" O'Boyle asked.

The Rev. Gregory Holston, pastor of New Vision United Methodist Church, called on City Council to hold Comcast responsible for expanding Internet access to everyone in Philadelphia. He said residents living in deep poverty lack adequate access to the Internet, noting many employers require job applications to be submitted online.

"Today, we come not to ask for charity but to ask for justice," Holston said. "Charity is always controlled by the powerful to dispense as they please. The definition of justice is where the people get fairness and equality for all."

Hillary Linardopoulos, a staff representative for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called on Comcast to extend its Internet Essentials program and make greater investments in digital literacy and career and technical education.

"These are just some of the ways Comcast can commit to ensuring that the children that walk into our classrooms every day know that they are valuable and that the grownups calling the shots are committed to their well-being," Linardopoulos testified.

Mark Reilly, Comcast senior vice president of government and regulatory relations, testified that Comcast has 333 employees who serve as ambassadors for its Internet Essentials program. He also said Comcast has contributed $240 million to local nonprofits.

"I think there's more that we can get done when we work together," Reilly said. "We're here to listen to the public about what your needs are and find out what is it that we can do to partner together."

Comment from the general public commenced around 6:40 p.m., more than 90 minutes late. The overwhelming majority called on Comcast to make greater investments in education, increase Internet access to low-income residents or slash cable rates. 

Robert Finkelstein, a freelance videographer, was among many speakers who urged the committee to ensure Comcast maintains funding for PhillyCAM, a public access television network. PhillyCAM advocates said their funding will be cut under the proposed agreement.

"They played a very important part in my development as a videographer," Finkelstein said. "I would not be working full-time today if it wasn't for PhillyCAM. ... The video field is a huge, expanding field. I think you should look at it as a training ground."

Alex Wiles, a North Philadelphia resident and graduate of Science Leadership Academy, asked Comcast to make a greater investment in the city's education system.

"I want to ask Comcast – are you going to hire people from these broken schools?" Wiles said. "I don't think so."

George Stevens, president of the Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association and a resident of a senior citizens facility, called on Comcast to lower its rates.

"We are on a fixed income," Stevens said. "We cannot afford some of the prices that Comcast has to offer."

Yet, a handful of speakers praised Comcast, including Anthony Maher, co-founder of Benjamin's Desk. The co-working network exclusively uses Comcast to provide ethernet, voice and TV service networks. Maher, a former professional soccer player, said Comcast has "the DNA of a teammate and a champion."

"Comcast has been that not just for Benjamin's Desk, but for the entrepreneur who's trying to make an impact," Maher said.