Tomorrow, the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety, Technology and Civil Rights Committee will consider Council Resolution 31569 I am sponsoring, along with Councilmember Bruce Harrell, urging the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) to require certain public-interest obligations of Comcast Corporation if its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved. The FCC and DoJ are expected to announce their decision on this merger in the near future.
Comcast Corporation leads the U.S. with nearly 22 million cable subscribers and over 20 million broadband subscribers while Time Warner Cable is the second-largest U.S. cable company, with roughly 11 million cable and broadband subscribers, together representing roughly half of all paying cable-TV-phone customers in the U.S.
The reason I felt the need for this Resolution lies with the history of Comcast Corporation’s past behavior.
Comcast’s Customer Service History
In 2007, Comcast Corporation intentionally lowered the speed of BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer video sharing protocol. In sanctioning the company, the FCC stated “[W]e conclude that the company’s discriminatory and arbitrary practice unduly squelches the dynamic benefits of an open and accessible Internet and does not constitute reasonable network management.”
In 2010 Comcast Corporation purchased NBC Universal for $30 billion and last year it announced plans to purchase Time Warner Cable for $45 billion.
In 2011, consumer advocacy group Free Press analyzed Comcast’s first-quarter compliance with its 2010 NBC merger localism requirements, concluding there was a dearth of local news and public affairs programming and that Comcast had overstated the amount of local news programming on its networks by including advertising time.
In 2012, the FCC fined Comcast $800,000 after receiving numerous complaints that their affordable standalone broadband Internet service was not being promoted by the company and was not easy to find when looking for service packages.
And, in 2013, the FCC issued an order compelling Comcast to stop its unfavorable treatment of Bloomberg News in favor of its own news outlets, MSNBC and CNBC, and to comply with the conditions imposed on the Comcast-NBC Universal merger agreement, which prohibits such favoritism.
Obligations to be Met
The public-interest obligations contained in this Resolution were articulated by the City’s Chief Technology Officer, Michael Mattmiller, and include:
1) Preserving and advancing Public, Educational, and Government access cable channels and programming (known as PEG);
2) Not opposing municipal broadband efforts and opposing state initiatives that would impose prohibitions or restrictions on public and public/private broadband projects;
3) Expanding Comcast Corporation’s low-cost Internet Essentials program in order to: a. increase the number of eligible students; b. include disadvantaged groups such as seniors and persons living in subsidized housing, and; c. provide higher internet speeds for discounted programs.
4) Abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Rules, not discriminate in bit transport, nor block access to lawful content;
5) Improving customer service by employing verifiable, time-based measurements and by subscribing to such measurements that may be administered by service area jurisdictions;
6) Not imposing data caps on Internet customers; and
7) Not using the competitive advantage brought about by this consolidation to increase prices for cable and internet services.
For some time now, Seattle has had a Cable Customer Bill of Rights compelling cable companies to provide a high level of customer service. Legally, this Bill mostly addresses TV services, as Internet services are regulated by Federal authority.
The Bill’s provisions address Courtesy, Accessibility, Responsiveness, Services for Customers with Disabilities, Customer Information, Customer Privacy, Safety, Satisfaction Guarantee, a Complaint Procedure and Credits to Customers:
- Cable company employees will “be courteous, knowledgeable and helpful” and “provide effective and satisfactory service in all contacts with Customers.”
- Cable companies will meet certain standards for accessibility, such as:
- Providing walk-in service centers open weekdays until 7pm and on Saturdays from 9am to 5pm;
- Providing free telephone access where calls are answered promptly and without busy signals;
- Having dispatchers and technicians on call 24 hours a day, every day, for emergency purposes;
- Installations for TV and Internet happen within seven days of a request and within any available four-hour block of time.
- Services enabling customers with disabilities to enjoy cable TV and Internet, such as TTY and hearing impaired devices are provided at no charge.
- Cable companies are prohibited from monitoring without prior written consent what programs customers watch.
- Cable companies are also prohibited from selling customer names or information to others, without prior written consent.
- When cable companies install service, they must provide customers with various types of information, including a complete version of the Cable Customer Bill of Rights, products and services offered and their prices; installation and service maintenance policies; policies about customer privacy, information on programs carried, channels and any changes to programming or channel positions, as well as abiding by laws guaranteeing customer safety and the safety of customer property.
Another important component of the Cable Customer Bill of Rights is procedures for cable companies’ handling of customer calls. In addition to courteous service, under the Bill customers are also entitled to a rapid response – all questions or complaints must be answered within 15 days. If customers do not agree with the response, or do not hear from the cable company within 15 days, they should contact the City’s Office of Cable Communications Cable Hotline at 206-684-8498 or 206-386-1989 weekdays, or e-mail them via www.seattle.gov/cable/comment.
Seattle’s Cable Customer Bill of Rights offers a model for the public-interest obligations my Resolution calls for. If the FCC and DoJ require those obligations of Comcast Corporation’s merger with Time Warner Cable, I believe it will greatly benefit cable and Internet consumers nationwide.
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