Seattle demands more benefits from Comcast for low-income residents

VIDEO: Low-income senior citizens in Seattle may soon be able to get discount on Comcast Internet

SEATTLE — The city of Seattle demanded last-minute improvements to a franchise agreement with Comcast, hours after learning that the cable company had given the city of Philadelphia more benefits than it offered Seattle.

Seattle council members were scheduled to sign the new 10-year agreement with Comcast on Monday, which would allow the company to continue use of public rights of way in exchange for paying taxes and fees.

The agreement does not preclude Seattle from signing a contract with a competing company.

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After hearing of expanded discounts given to low-income seniors in Philadelphia, Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Bruce Harrell wrote a letter to Comcast asking for the same consideration.

The existing negotiated contract in Seattle already included benefits that Comcast would give the city:

  • 600 free Internet connections to nonprofits
  • $8 million to support public, education and government channels
  • Free cable to government and schools
  • Discounted cable TV for low-income households
  • Discounted Internet service for families with children who qualify for free or reduced lunch

The discounted Internet service is $9.95 per month for very basic speeds.

Last week, Comcast offered the same discount in Philadelphia and expanded its availability to low-income senior citizens.

Low-income seniors could begin signing up for this service as early as mid-2016, by going to www.seattle.gov/cable.

“Did we not know that they had this nationwide program? What did it take for us to get access to it?” said Councilmember Nick Licata.

The city’s chief technology officer, Michael Mattmiller, explained that Seattle had asked about this pilot program, but Comcast did not agree to it.

Since Friday however, after the mayor’s letter, Comcast has agreed to give Seattle the added benefit.

“We’re very pleased that Comcast has recognized the opportunity to step up their commitment,” Mattmiller said.

Over the weekend, Comcast added these benefits:

  • Discounted Internet for low-income seniors
  • Increased grant money from $50,000 for one year, to $500,000 over five years, for digital equity programs to bring Internet service to more people
  • Laptops for youth at risk of losing their homes

On Monday, some councilmembers expressed concern about the enforcement of these new promises.

Mattmiller explained that because these franchise agreements govern cable television exclusively, deals involving the Internet are not within the contract terms.

However, offers for discounted Internet have been given by the company in the past, without fail.

City staff will now explore how to ensure Comcast will hold its end of the bargain on the new discount offers, before the council revisits the contract next Monday.