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Using the Franchise to Organize Against Comcast - Community Broadband Bits Episode 124
We first became aware of the Media Mobilizing Project through our work with the Media Action Grassroots. MMP has been working in Philadelphia to organize low income neighborhoods to improve access to the Internet and media more generally. Hannah Jane Sassaman is the MMP Policy Director and joins us this week for Episode 124 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
We discuss how Comcast and other cable companies are failing our communities and how MMP is using upcoming franchise re-negotiations to organize for better Internet access and other community benefits.
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Thanks to Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"
Hannah Jane Sassaman: Internet Essentials is a really important example of why letting big companies like Comcast own all of the infrastructure that lets us communicate and determine the policies that let us communicate is exactly the wrong idea for the next generation.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello there. Welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.
Hannah Jane Sassaman, Policy Director for Media Mobilizing Project, joins Chris today. The project is centered in Philadelphia, where a significant amount of the population is trapped in the digital divide. As most of our listeners know, Comcast offered Internet Essentials a few years ago to sweeten their NBC merger proposition. The program was supposed to get more lower-income people online, but it has had dismal results. In this interview, Hannah describes how the Media Mobilizing Project discovered Comcast's immense political clout in Philadelphia that went far beyond exposition as a cable TV and Internet provider.
As the community discovered how the multibillion-dollar corporation was taking advantage of them, animosity grew, and they decided it was time to hold Comcast's feet to the fire. Philadelphia's franchise agreement with Comcast is coming to an end, and the Media Mobilizing Project saw this is an opportunity to demand Comcast finally pay its fair share. They have begun a grassroots movement to pressure local officials to require any new agreement to include more affordable services for local citizens, a requirement that Comcast pay its fair share in taxes, and that Comcast employees should receive the benefits they deserve. The Media Mobilizing Project provides more detail on the platform at its website capcomcast.org. Here are Hannah Jane Sassaman and Chris, discussing efforts to tell Comcast to support its home town.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today I'm speaking with Hannah Jane Sassaman, the Policy Director for Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia. Welcome to the show.
Hannah Jane Sassaman: Thank you so much.
Chris: I'm excited to have you on. Always like guests from Philly. I love going back there to visit friends. And I grew up in Allentown, so I'm a big fan of the cheesesteak, which is only possible to get in the Philadelphia area.
Hannah: Next time you're here, I'll make sure you get the best one in town.
Chris: Is that Jim's?
Hannah: This place, Tony Luke's, that has -- puts this incredibly garlicky, oily, broccoli rub on their cold pork sandwiches, and other great stuff on their cheesesteaks. It's something that most folks out-of-town don't know about. But it's definitely the best cheesesteak and the best cold pork in town.
Chris: All right. Well. I'm very glad to learn that. I look forward to that, next time I'm in town. And, now that we have our listeners starting to be really interested in what's going on in Philadelphia, why don't you tell us a little bit about the Media Mobilizing Project?
Hannah: Sure. So, Media Mobilizing Project is a group that focuses on communications rights as a tool to end poverty. We live in the poorest big city in the United States. Philly is the poorest of the top ten big cities. And there's millions of people in this region that really struggle to get by. That struggle to get their kids into good schools, that struggle to get good jobs in healthcare, that are struggling against immigration issues, and many other issues. But they're isolated from each other, and it's really -- people feel really alone. So we do everything from really intensive media trainings to help people break the digital divide, to get online. We produce stories that really unite people across color lines, across communities of origin, across age. And we focus really hard, as well, on the structure of the media system that either lets us tell those stories or keeps us from telling those stories.
So, we've done everything from win $20 million for the city of Philadelphia from a big stimulus package that let us build 77 computer labs with community partners across the city. We produce very high quality video work that helps taxi workers win workman's compensation, that's helped Head Start parents -- we authorized the Head Start program to keep their kids in preschool. And we focus really hard on the relationships between things like the shuttering of our Philadelphia School District's schools, the closing of hospitals, and the ability for us to tell those stories, in the city where Comcast is headquartered. So, it's about the relationship between everyday things that we go through and our ability to connect with each other to solve the problems facing people in America today.
Chris: Well, working in those communities, I have to assume that you're very familiar with the Comcast Internet Essentials program -- a program that, if you listen to Comcast, you know, is the solution for making sure that people that have children in the home are able to access the Internet so they can be educated and have all the tools that all the other kids have. What's been your experience, and the community's experience, with that program?
Hannah: Internet Essentials is a really important example of why letting big companies like Comcast own all of the infrastructure that lets us communicate and determine the policies that lets us communicate is exactly the wrong idea for the next generation. So, back in 2011, as your listeners probably remember, Comcast was trying to merge with NBC-Universal -- which, you know, instinctively seems like a pretty -- pretty bad idea. It's a lot of monopolization in one industry. But executives at Comcast, led by David Cohen, the Executive VP there, told Congress that if they were allowed to merge with NBC, that they would get two million families online -- two million people online that weren't online before, with $10 a month Internet, a subsidized refurbished computer, and training to learn how to use it. Only, in 2011, something like 500 families in Philly were using it -- in a city where many, many families were eligible.
And the issue was that Comcast put a ton of barriers in front of low-income families to be able to use the service. They set it up so that if you owed Comcast any money, any back bills, or if you had old equipment at your house, that you had to pay that off, you had to return the equipment, in order to get online. They would check your credit. And these are issues that folks living in poverty struggle with all the time. The program was also only available to families where the kids were enrolled initially just in public schools. They expanded it after that to private, parochial, other kinds of schools. And those kids had to qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch programs. So that meant that millions of people that didn't qualify for those programs but still couldn't afford an unpredictable Comcast bill every month -- folks with disabilities, seniors, folks who were out of work, who needed Internet connectivity to get a job -- were just cut out of the picture, completely.
There was a really good piece, done by a reporter named Alan Holmes, who works for the Center for Public Integrity, studying the impact of Comcast's discount program's lack of availability to folks who were out of work, and to seniors, for example. And so, I think what really matters is that Comcast PRETENDS that that program really fixes the digital divide. They look at like a kind of charity. When really what we need is regulated and legislated change.
We shouldn't let Comcast have it both ways, saying: Please don't regulate us. Please let us merge with Time Warner Cable, for example. Please let us, you know, prevent cities like Pittsburgh, cities like Scranton, other cities in Pennsylvania from building their own competitive networks. Let us have a monopoly in every city where we work. Don't charge us any taxes. Comcast, you know, pushes very hard with its lobbying dollars to demand all these things. But then really doesn't actually get poor people online. Currently around the United States, only 12 percent of eligible families are using this program. And in Philly, that number is even lower: it's 9 percent. That's in Comcast's home town.
So, when we look at breaking the digital divide, and making sure everyone has the ability to advocate for their future, to learn, to apply for jobs, we can't trust big companies to do it on their own. We have to make sure that we're building the competitive market, that we are protecting communities' right to build their own solutions, to truly make that happen.
Chris: You actually left out some other incredibly troubling details for even those who are able to figure out that there's this program out there that they could sign up for. I mean, there's the issue that Comcast just hasn't done a good job marketing it, in Philadelphia or anywhere. Oftentimes, when people call in, once they've learned about it, perhaps from a church group or something, they'll get a customer service representative who has no idea what they're talking about. And then, if they navigate the barriers, a few months later, they get one device that can connect to the Internet. You know, it's really -- the program is so incredibly limited. And, as Alan -- I believe Alan Holmes -- showed, it's still a profit center for Comcast. They're not even ...
Hannah: That's right!
Chris: ... losing money on it. You know, it's one of those things where -- You know, I hate to say, you know, oh, Comcast SHOULD be losing money on it. Well, the question should be, is it meeting the needs? And it's not. And on top of it, Comcast is just finding a way of sucking more money out of these communities that don't have it to give.
Hannah: That's right. Comcast earned $18 million a year off this discount Internet program. Which is, I think, pretty disgusting. And I think the point that you brought up, Chris, about how this is really something that they're not even promoting well is quite right.
I was working with a school, a public school here in Philadelphia, named Constitution High. It's a magnet school, focused on history, focused on social studies, that in Old City, that's in the birthplace of the American democracy. It's literally a block and a half away from the Liberty Bell. I went and visited that school, and worked with a teacher there named Miranda Thompson and a number of students. And they said that Comcast had come in, in 2011, and done a huge dog-and-pony show at the school. They brought the Mayor. They brought the Philadelphia Eagles, football players. They brought a lot of cameras. They shut the second-floor bathrooms so only Comcast employees could use it, none of the kids could use it. They did this big dog-and-pony show to launch Internet Essentials. And all the students got in return were ten laptops for the school, of which -- six of which were broken the next year. I saw a pile of dead brick laptops.
And when Miranda did a survey, of over 150 students she interacts with during the day -- she just did a, you know, not a scientifically significant one, but talked with all of the kids she saw for a school day. Only three of those kids were signed up for the Internet Essentials program. And this is a school where two-thirds of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And so, what we're looking at is, Comcast's putting forward this program to try to merge with Time Warner Cable, to cover and paper over their merger with NBC. And because of the really clear analysis that -- and the great media coverage that we've gotten -- that a number of advocates and students and community advocates have gotten around the paucity of this program, Comcast has started to improve it a little bit.
Like, for example, they removed that provision that was saying that if you owed them any money that you couldn't get online. They said that if that bill was over a year old, they would cancel it. They literally called it an "amnesty." Which I found to be incredibly telling about Comcast's hubris. Comcast thinks they've got the power to grant "amnesty" to people in the United States who are poor. They literally think that they have that control. Really what we need is an amnesty from the closed, monopolized, completely-out-of-control market that prevents the Internet from being an affordable utility, like it is in millions of other communities around the world. And so, I think that there's more and more analysis, both in our everyday communities as well as in Congress and at the FCC, that we need competitive, local broadband networks, as well as strong restrictions on what Comcast can charge our communities, to make sure that everyone gets online.
Chris: One of the challenges of having those competitive systems, of course, is that it is incredibly difficult to organize around opposition to Comcast. For whatever reason. People are furious with Comcast, they hate their cable company. And yet, it's difficult to get them to recognize that there's an alternative. You've started to do this. You've identified that there IS an opportunity to organize around. And that's the franchise renegotiation. Because Comcast needs approval from the city to be offering its services. And this is true in about half of our states that have local franchising still. So why don't you tell us a little bit about what you're working on?
Hannah: Last year, in 2013, we noticed -- we were working with -- we work with poor people's organizations, unions, all the time. To help them tell their stories, and to help unite their stories, as I described before. We were working with a coalition that was trying to expand paid sick days -- that was trying to make sure that the 200,000 workers in Philly, that don't even have one paid day off a year -- people who work in restaurants, do child care -- get it.
Chris: This is a tangent that I really want to just cover briefly. It's really personal to me. I worked developing film for Ritz Camera, back when there was Ritz Camera stores. And ...
Chris: ... you know, this was an hourly job. And there was no paid sick time. If I got sick, and I took a day off of work, I was expected to have a note from the doctor to justify ...
Chris: ... So, not only did I not get paid, and I didn't earn enough to actually have medical care -- to have health insurance -- I sure wasn't going to go to the doctor if I was ill. I was going to wait a while. But this is something that a number of cities have been looking at. Health care policy is not something we typically talk about. But Comcast really inserted themselves into this debate in Philadelphia, which I just found astounding.
Hannah: Totally, Chris. Your Ritz Cameras story is indicative of what millions of people in this country go through -- hundreds of thousands here in Comcast's home town. So, we noticed, in 2013, that the biggest lobbyist against that bill in Philly City Council, to try to kill it, was Comcast. They spent more than any other lobbyist, talking to all of the members of Council about why they didn't think it should pass. And we thought that was an outrage. And also a really important thing to tell this city: that this company that claims to be a hometown hero was fighting the poorest people's right to have even one paid day off, to take care of a sick parent, or sick child, or themselves. It's just astounding to us.
And so, we work with national groups and local organizations. We got about 60,000 petition signatures, telling our City Council to listen to us, not to Comcast. We took them around City Hall, surrounded by TV cameras. And we -- I really believe that we moved the votes of a bunch of those different City Council members to vote "yes" when they otherwise would have voted "no." We got a majority of Councilors to pass a bill, but it was one vote short of a veto-proof majority. That bill was vetoed by our mayor.
We found out that Comcast was paying about a third of the taxes that other Pennsylvania-headquartered companies were paying. Here in Pennsylvania, they pay 3.4 percent in income taxes in a state where 10 percent is the average. We found that in their big downtown headquarters, they pay basically nothing in their -- on their huge building in property taxes. Which is particularly egregious because our school district depends on property tax to survive. And after we've been, you know, starved, in our school district, by our governor, by our mayor -- we just shuttered over 20 schools here in Philly, and schools opened this year without guidance counselors, nurses, sports, arts, you know -- it's a really a really telling thing when we have a company like Comcast not supporting the city where it actually lives.
We found that the new headquarters that they're building, they're getting $40 million in subsidies, right out of the gate, to build that building. And it's not like they're going to be providing jobs to low-income Philadelphians. They're going to try to import fancy techs and, you know, world-class employees, as they describe it, from outside of our community.
And we also found that executives at Comcast were actively pushing to break our teachers union, to -- instead of Comcast paying more in taxes to support the schools, Comcast was trying to force our teachers to pay more for, you know, subsidizing a school district, which is absolutely at rock-bottom bankruptcy.
It really seemed like a perfect time to focus on how can we ask the question, what is Comcast's responsibility to the city that has given so much to it, in a time of economic crisis? But we're the fourth-biggest cable market in the country, as well as Comcast's headquarters. So we're no joke. And then, we found that Comcast's 15-year deal, that they signed with the city of Philadelphia, in order to provide cable connectivity -- Comcast, because they dig up our streets, they have to pay what's called a franchise fee to the city of Philadelphia. And what that fee is -- it's calculated based on 5 percent of their gross cable receipts, every year. So that's not broadband, and that's not voice-over-IP. It's not the triple play. It's just their cable receipts.
And they also have to provide funding and some channel space for public-access television, which is vitally important. We do a lot of work on our local access channel, PhillyCAM. But we were looking at that franchise deal, saying why wouldn't we work to make it politically necessary and possible? That if Comcast is going to get another 15-year deal, that they have to actually pay their fair share. Even though it's not legally necessary for Comcast to, for example, pay another 5 percent on top of that 5 percent in cable receipts. Or to expand that Internet Essentials program we were talking about earlier, to create promotions for millions of other people in our region to access it. Or to pay for every piece of technology in the Philadelphia public schools, and provide free connectivity to them and their families, for example, for the life of the franchise. All of these things seem morally obvious. But they're not legally required.
But we -- but the negotiation, in order to get a franchise, is just that. It's a negotiation between the city of Philadelphia and Comcast. And we're working with thousands of people across the city, we're working with members of City Council, we're working with the technical office here in the city, to say that Comcast should not get a new franchise unless it pays its fair share. Unless it really makes sure that the rates for the service that it provides are affordable. So hundreds of thousands more people get online. That the resources that Comcast provides start to meet its deep, deep profits.
Like the fact that they don't pay enough in taxes, here in Philadelphia, is egregious. And that competition is something that can happen over the next 15 years. That we open up the franchise, look at either what the legal provisions are there, or what the political realities are that prevent other competitors -- fiber, um, you know, high-speed wireless -- from coming to Philadelphia -- that we get those kicked out, so we build the competition we need, so consumers truly get an affordable, high-speed, viable service. And Comcast has to bring down their prices to match it.
So that's -- those are the demands we're going to try to attach to this franchise. We're going to be bringing hundreds of people to public hearings around this, which should be announced any day now. It should be happening before the end of 2014. And we'll be working to make sure that low-income people, that local entrepreneurs, that people who represent the schools are telling their Council members that Comcast shouldn't get a new deal unless the true communications and resource needs of the city are met. And we think that this is a model that people can follow all around the United States.
Right now, Comcast is attempting to merge with Time Warner [Cable]. They're also trying to divest from a number of cities that they've served for years. Like Detroit, for example. They're trying to pick [pull] up states in Detroit so when they -- if and when they merge with Time Warner Cable, the amount of homes that are being served by Comcast falls under a cap of around 30 percent of American homes, so the Department of Justice won't consider them a monopoly. So they're leaving cities like Detroit. They're leaving, like, the Twin Cities region. In order to get Manhattan. In order to get Los Angeles. So when those cities are looking at new franchises that Comcast is trying to ram through, so they look kosher to the Department of Justice, they should also be looking at what are the different provisions they can attach to a franchise that make Internet more affordable, that make the resources the community needs far more on the table, and that builds the future of competition, which can keep communications prices down for millions of people.
Chris: All right. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Hannah: Thank you, Chris.
Lisa: Hannah left us with a few other suggestions for communities who may be in a similar situation. She suggests capcomcast.org to review in detail some of the demands the Media Mobilizing Project is putting together for the Philadelphia franchising negotiations. They have a number of resources, including video, and a petition we encourage you to sign and submit. You should also take a moment to contact your own elected officials and let them know that you support this type of strategy to improve connectivity in your community. Hannah also recommends trying to connect your local officials to elected officials in places where community networks have already had a positive impact. We have hundreds of examples at muninetworks.org . Lastly, she suggests following events at the FCC, and commenting to show your support for proposals that encourage community networks, local control, and network neutrality.
Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . This week we want to thank Jessie Evans for the song, "Is it Fire?" licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening.