As the public comment period for the impending Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger draws to a close today, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler asking that the companies do more for the city’s “public interest.” Unlike most major mergers, this one hits close to home by affecting quality and cost of Internet access — not just in New York, but in cities around the country. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter gathered the signatures of more than 50 mayors around the country endorsing the merger. Mayor de Blasio and the mayors of Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle were noticeably absent from the list. For de Blasio, the Comcast-Time Warner merger is only as good as the access and opportunity it brings for low-income residents.
Mayor de Blasio campaigned on bringing broadband to the masses and hired Maya Wiley from the Center for Social Inclusion as his counsel because of her work on broadband equity. Wiley says that the Comcast-Time Warner merger represents a potential “opportunity” to address the city’s needs for better infrastructure and access.
In brief, de Blasio’s wish list includes the following.
- Affordable access for low-income and other underserved residents, including the elderly and persons with disabilities
- Transparent accounting of rate changes
- Improved customer service and notification
- Timely upgrading of infrastructure to fiber optic cable
- Expansion of affordable broadband infrastructure and services to geographic locations where they are lacking
- Support for municipal access and resiliency initiatives
- Meaningful and stable support for public, educational and government channels
- Protection and promotion of an open Internet, through Net Neutrality commitments
These ideas come after “productive and amicable” conversations with Comcast, Wiley says, noting that Comcast has already improved upon its programs for low-income residents “in response to listening to cities like New York that have been raising these issues.” The letter to the FCC indicates de Blasio is prepared to keep pressing those points; he cites problems such as blocks of Brooklyn and Queens without broadband connectivity and says “Comcast must take steps to ensure that rates and services for all consumers are transparent.” Here are some quick highlights from the Mayor’s comments. (The full PDF can be found below.)
Improve, Expand and Think Beyond the Internet Essentials Program
“Comcast has pointed to the Internet Essentials program, a reduced-cost offering for low-income individuals in its service areas, as indicative of its commitment to serving the public interest,” the letter notes. The program offers Internet access for $9.95/month plus tax. That said, de Blasio found that only 12 percent of eligible families have signed up for the program. Part of the problem, de Blasio notes, is that “eligibility requirements — even as expanded by the company in response to criticism — remain too narrow and effectively limit the ability of large numbers of low-income individuals to enroll.” For example, the program requires that eligible households have a child who qualifies for free or reduced lunch — this means that the elderly don’t qualify. Moreover, Internet Essentials customers get slower speed Internet, raising questions of true equity. In conclusion, de Blasio asks: Why only have the Internet Essentials program? Couldn’t there be an array of low-cost options that would address different consumer groups?
Be Honest About What Internet Costs
Here, de Blasio is concerned that rates will rise not only for the low-income residents mentioned above, but for businesses — the tech sector, in particular. “Increases in broadband service rates for business customers threaten to hamper the tech sector innovation that has helped to drive economic growth in the City in recent years.” There is good reason to be concerned: Cable rates have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the past 17 years. De Blasio calls for greater transparency on the true cost of Internet access, including when rate hikes happen.
Provide Better, Local Customer Service
Comcast was recently the country’s laughingstock when a rage-inducing customer service phone call went viral. The sad thing about this merger is that, as the letter explains, “among all of New York City’s cable franchisees, Time Warner Cable has the highest ratio of complaints to cable subscribers.” Neither company is known for good customer service, but de Blasio points out what must be a little known aspect of FCC regulation. “Commission regulations require that cable companies meet specific telephone availability benchmarks. According to the federal guidelines, calls to cable systems must be answered — including wait time — within 30 seconds after the connection is made. If the call is transferred, the transfer time may not exceed 30 seconds. These standards must be met at least 90 percent of the time, measured quarterly, under ‘normal operating conditions.’” It would be a massive upgrade of customer service if the new Comcast met these requirements.
As a final request, de Blasio urges that Comcast retain the two Time Warner call centers located in the city, and the workers located there, noting that people working locally can address issues within the context of the city.
Build the Broadband the City Was Promised
Like other kinds of infrastructure around the country, the broadband infrastructure in New York is lacking. De Blasio notes that some blocks in Brooklyn and Queens are lacking the infrastructure that’s so critical to the administration’s goal of broadband equity; other sections of the city find their Internet speeds are too slow to truly do business. De Blasio notes “one recent survey of [tech] professionals found that inadequate broadband connectivity was the second most frequently cited impediment to the growth of the sector in the City” and calls on Comcast to ensure that it will build broadband into every nook and cranny of the city by 2020.
Ensure Net Neutrality
If the Comcast-Time Warner merger goes through, the market share the company will have will be enormous. Unless Comcast abides by net neutrality, “the City is concerned that the contemplated merger … will inhibit the public’s ability to access and distribute. The newly merged entity will have inordinate influence over what millions of Americans see online. This may occur through choices about what channels Comcast will or will not carry. Alternatively, this influence may be exercised through ‘paid prioritization’ agreements allowing the company to expedite content produced by providers who are willing to pay additional fees.” A thorny subject indeed, net neutrality extends far beyond the city to the whole country.
If New York were to get all the programs proposed in their comments, Wiley says it would represent a “significant” change in business as usual. And it would come at a time when New York is already pursuing a suite of other programs to improve access to Internet, such as wiring NYCHA community centers or partnering with community-led tech hubs like Silicon Harlem.
Mayor de Blasio’s comments demonstrate his years of experience as the city’s former public advocate. But this time around, it’s not just the city’s welfare that he’s worried about — it’s all of ours.
Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.