How Philly Crafted a Comcast Franchise Agreement in the City's Favor

The renewed cable franchise agreement of 2015 included an important expansion of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program.

How Philly Crafted a Comcast Franchise Agreement in the City's Favor
Photo of Comcast Center in Philadelphia used with permission.

WASHINGTON, February 6, 2024 – The way that a coalition of local internet advocates in Philadelphia pressured the city council to leverage renewal of its Comcast cable franchise agreement to secure a deal that expanded free and affordable internet access resources a decade ago may provide lessons for other cities dealing with broadband infrastructure.

As the impending renewal of the 2015 franchise agreement approached, a group called the Movement Alliance Project attempted to address a number of issues city residents experienced with Comcast.

The city’s franchise agreement with Comcast included victories for the coalition, such as the expansion of free internet and video services to over 200 public institutions, heightened customer service improvements, enhanced protection for cable and internet workers, and the introduction of new local job opportunities, among other benefits to the city.

The renewed cable franchise agreement included an expansion of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program for city residents. This program, which provides low-cost internet access, a computer, and a Wi-Fi router, became accessible to every low-income family with schoolchildren, all eligible seniors, and an additional 1,200 qualifying citizens in Philadelphia.

Under the renegotiated contract, Comcast also committed for the first time to end the “90-day freeze out” policy. This policy had previously required individuals hoping to benefit from the Internet Essentials program to first go without Comcast services for three months, in order to qualify. That policy was soon expanded by Comcast nationwide.

Other provisions in the renewed franchise agreement included:

  • Comcast will donate $500,000 dollars as seed money for a digital literacy fund that will allow the city to raise other funds in its attempt to allow everyone to have access to the internet.
  • Comcast will pay prevailing and living wages for all its employees and subcontractors.
  • Comcast will hire 150 to 200 new customer service workers in Philadelphia.
  • Comcast increased its funding for public educational and government channels from 8 million to 21.3 million.
  • Comcast will continue to collect and turn over to the city the 5% percent franchise fee that allows the city to fund basic services.
  • Comcast has agreed to pilot any new programs in Philadelphia first, ensuring Philadelphians have access to the newest programs.

A cable television franchise agreement is a contractual arrangement between a cable television provider and a local government, which grants the cable company the right to use the city’s public roadways and other property to provide cable television services to residents within a specific geographic area.

In return for the privilege of using public rights-of-way in a franchise agreement, the cable company typically agrees to certain conditions, such as providing a certain level of service quality, offering public access channels, contributing to local programming, and paying franchise fees (typically 5 percent of yearly gross cable revenue) to the local government.

Local advocacy groups spur accountability in Philadelphia’s renewed franchise agreement 

The CAP Comcast campaign was initiated by the Movement Alliance Project in 2014.

As the renewal of the 15-year renegotiation approached, MAP coordinated with local organizations to engage city council members, attend meetings, and participate in hearings.

Recognizing the dissatisfaction among Philadelphians with Comcast’s cable internet service—marked by issues of reliability, affordability, and quality—the local internet coalition, led by MAP, advocated for the release of a third-party survey on Comcast’s performance.

According to reports, the city disclosed findings marked by prolonged service outages, lowest overall satisfaction rates among multiple surveyed areas, five times the regulatory-mandated number of busy signals when attempting to contact customer service, and an average monthly charge of $154.86, significantly higher than in comparable Comcast markets, as reported by The Guardian.

Additionally, it was uncovered that Comcast’s growth had been fueled by tax abatements granted by both the city and state, further underscoring the need to hold the company accountable to its promises under the franchise agreement with Philadelphia.

In their advocacy efforts, Philadelphians helped create a model that cities and communities across the country can adopt and implement in their own franchise agreements.

Despite successful efforts, both Hannah Sassaman, former policy director for MAP, and Jackie Williams, director of operations for LA21, say that looking back, they would have done things differently knowing what they know now, recounted Next City.

“Making sure that city offices are funded as a part of the deal or having a permanent digital inclusion effort to make sure the city is empowered and tasked with observing the community-based elements of the agreement, we didn’t do that,” Sassaman said.

“I wish we had really focused on how we could help small businesses get internet access,” added Williams, whose organization greatly aided in the CAP Comcast effort. “We talked about it a little bit, but the concern was more with the digital divide” on the individual and community levels instead of the business dimension.

Clarification: Because of an editing error, this article about changes to internet service in Philadelphia brought on by the renewal of Comcast’s 2015 franchise agreement did not highlight the time frame of the franchise renewal. The story has been modified.