Media

Inside One City's Fascinating Battle to Ban Comcast from Operating in Its Borders

A lesson for us all about corporate power and how to fight it.
Buoyed by residents concerned by reports of substandard customer service and spiraling prices, last month the Worcester, Mass. City Council voted 8-3 to reject the cable behemoth’s request to take the city's cable franchise from Charter Communications. But after weeks of delays, the reluctant City Manager let Comcast in on Thursday, providing the company acts like a good citizen. 
 
City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. handed Comcast the license, after the cable company agreed to go “above and beyond” what is required in its contract, including keeping a local call center open for three years and providing locally-produced news programming. But while Augustus is claiming victory in Worcester's battle against Comcast, he seems to have missed the whole point the revolt against Comcast. Worcester residents don't want the cable company with such a sketchy reputation operating within its boundaries.
 
"It's a terrible company," District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. "In my opinion, they should not be welcome in this city. Comcast is a wolf in wolf's clothing; it's that bad. They are awful, no doubt about it. Maybe we can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out."
 
Unfortunately, the vote by the council is not legally binding and all city contracts must be approved by Augustus However, the council was resolute in its rebuke of Comcast, calling its customer service “deplorable and substandard.” 
 
America's biggest cable operator has been dodging brickbats in the media for a spate of recent customer service disasters and overwhelming public disapproval of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. ​This bad publicity is not lost on Worcester's residents and council, who would rather not do business with one of America's most hated corporations.
 
Cable companies rank among the least trusted corporations in the U.S. And Comcast, which is now the largest cable television provider in the U.S., ranks near the bottom in satisfaction in many consumer surveys.
 
The public has heard about the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner, which was first announced in February. The merged company, still named Comcast, would control more than two-thirds of all cable television subscriptions in the country, and some 40 percent of the home Internet market. Currently, the $45.2 merger is awaiting approval from the FCC and the U.S. Department of Justice after both company's shareholders approved the merger.
 
But survey after survey shows that Americans wholeheartedly oppose the proposed merger of the two cable and Internet giants. The latest survey, by Consumer Reports, finds nearly three-quarters of Americans believe the merger will result in higher cable and Internet rates, while two-thirds say it will likely have a negative impact on customer service and that Comcast would have no incentive to improve.
 
According toConsumer Reports, the survey’s respondents are also concerned about net neutrality, with 81% saying they’re concerned the merger will lead to the Comcast juggernaut playing favorites with Internet content, specifically streaming video providers. Comcast has controlling interest of NBC Universal, which is comprised of 22 cable stations and several broadcast television outlets. NBC Universal also owns 32% of the video streaming company Hulu.
 
“Most Americans don’t have time to follow complicated corporate mergers, but this deal has definitely captured the public’s attention,” says Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “Consumers are tired of rising monthly bills and lousy customer service for cable and Internet and have little faith that this mega merger will make things any better.”
 
In another Consumer Reports survey, Comcast rated 15 out of 17 in customer service among cable providers. The consumer advocacy magazine said Comcast had "particularly low marks for value for the money and customer support." And merging with Time Warner Cable won’t help Comcast’s poor performance; Time Warner ranked one spot below Comcast. In addition to sharing the customer support problems of Comcast, consumers find Time Warner to have dubious reliability.
 
Comcast’s terrible reputation was not helped much by an infamous customer service call that was recorded and published on TechCrunch. When technology editor Ryan Block insisted that he wanted to terminate his service, a Comcast retention representative refused to do so, instead berating Block over the phone. The recording, which went viral and later made national headlines, amplified customers’ frustrations with Comcast and other cable providers.
 
Telegram and Gazette columnist Nick Kotsopoulos says that Comcast needed to save face and find common ground in Worcester, considering all its recent bad publicity. 

"From a PR point of view, Comcast certainly would prefer to be welcomed to the city — if that is at all possible in the eyes of some cable consumers — rather than being forced upon local cable customers through the equivalent of an arranged marriage."

Not only was the city council's vote non-binding, had Augustus either agreed with them or failed to act on the city council’s recommendation after the granted extensions, the license would likely have gone to Comcast anyway, as the corporation would have appealed directly to Massachusetts cable-television regulators, who would have likely approved the deal. 

Worcester’s deputy city solicitor, Michael Traynor, says a cable license can be granted or denied based on limited criteria, which includes the company's management, technical and legal experience, and financial capabilities. And as the state's Cable Television Commission had already signed off on 51 other municipalities that were also part of the swapping of licenses between Charter to Comcast, they would have overridden any rebuke made by Worcester, say those familiar with the process.

Still, what Worcester's council attempted was unprecedented, standing up for upset consumers against monolithic corporation. While some believe that the council's vote didn't have any teeth, they were able to get some small concessions from Comcast, and hopefully inspire other communities to demand better service from Comcast, or other cable operators, for that matter. 

 

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

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