This afternoon, the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee held a meeting, the entire purpose of which was to provide a forum for public comments on the renewal of Comcast’s franchise agreement with the City of Seattle to provide cable services. And comments they surely received.
The session lasted approximately an hour, with Council members Harrell and Bagshaw in attendance, and the comments ranged widely. There were, of course, the random mutterings and conspiracy theories which are a staple of city council public comment sessions. There also were the consumers who wanted to complain about Comcast’s notoriously poor customer service.
Interestingly, there were people who rose to praise the company. Of particular note was a representative of Boys and Girls Clubs, who said that Comcast has been an excellent partner for the organization in many ways. Others thanked Comcast for providing free Internet access to nonprofits in the community (a requirement in their current contract that carries forward to the draft renewal agreement).
There were three substantive complaints raised that could be addressed in the renewal:
- While Comcast is required to make a limited basic cable subscription available to low-income residents, actually getting it is far more difficult. Speakers discussed how Comcast only makes service available in multi-resident buildings where they believe there are enough potential customers, so some of the city’s affordable housing projects do not have cable service available. Further, several speakers representing nonprofits that work with low-income residents complained that Comcast aggressively upsells low-income residents to higher price packages that they can’t afford (and that switch to even higher rates after an introductory period). This leaves many of these people with accumulated debts owed to Comcast, further damaging their credit-worthiness and making it even harder for them to improve their economic standing. One speaker suggested that CenturyTel did a much better job at advertising the affordable basic offering and not trying to upsell its low-income customers.
- As our community has diversified its racial and ethnic base, Comcast has added more cultural and language channels. Unfortunately, they haven’t added them to the limited basic offering, so they are effectively unavailable to many people in those communities at a price they can afford.
- Many representative of nonprofits in the community who benefit from the city’s technology access fund that is financially supported by Comcast expressed their concern that the draft 2016 renewal would reduce or eliminate that funding. They described all the benefits to low-income residents, at-risk youth, and other groups in our community that benefit greatly from those funds. One organization, PugetSoundOff, got repeated mention.
The most memorable quote of the session was from a speaker who reminded the council, “Technology is our medium of civic engagement in the twenty first century,” reinforcing the importance of assuring that all citizens of Seattle can connect into the civic conversation. Another made the more debatable assertion, “High speed Internet access is a fundamental human right.”
Council chair Harrell concluded the meeting by thanking all the speakers, and announced that the next committee meeting where the Comcast agreement will be discussed is scheduled for December 2 — and the committee may vote on the agreement at that time.