Many Boston residents are frustrated with their choices, or lack thereof, when it comes to cable and Internet services being dominated by companies like Comcast. A different sort of monopoly – of the sidewalks – has found the telecom giant running afoul of the city regulations today.
Comcast sales representatives spent the past week crowding the commercial areas of student-heavy enclaves like Allston, Fenway, and the Back Bay with unauthorized promotional booths and aggressive personnel flagging down everyone who passed by.
Tuesday afternoon, after the mayor’s office (acting on questions posed by me), said they’re sending Boston’s Code Enforcement Department out to clarify the permitting process and cite the company for violations.
These sorts of sales tactics are a regular fixture this time of year, but as multiple residents and area employees have told me, it’s become overbearing to the point of frustration this time around.
On Harvard and Commonwealth Ave in Allston on Tuesday, all four corners of the intersection were occupied by Comcast Xfinity tables. A couple blocks up the street another sat in front of CVS. Further down was another table set up at the corner of Brighton and Harvard Ave.
“It’s very annoying to me,” Joe McMahon, who lives and works in the neighborhood, said of having to navigate through, as a friend of mine put it, “Comcast entrapment stops.”
“They don’t try to stop me anymore because I can give off a pretty good ‘fuck off’ demeanor,” McMahon said. “But the fact that anyone has to deal with dodging them is ridiculous. Every time I leave my apartment or work their presence is overwhelming. If you drive by Harvard and Comm. it almost looks like a political rally on voting day: a one candidate race, and we’re all voting Comcast this year.”
In this intersection alone there might be as many as 20 different sales reps all hustling at any given time.
On Monday evening, area residents called the Boston police to complain about the vendors’ monopolization of the public space. BPD instructed that tables be moved so that they weren’t impeding sidewalk foot traffic.
“If they were dudes shaking a cup for change or crust punks just sitting and having dogs they shouldn’t have they’d have been rounded up last week,” a man who works in the area and asked not to be identified told me. “And it’s Comcast. They can pay to do that and they aren’t. The cops were informed and they told the dude to move his table so it’s not sticking too far out into the sidewalk. But it’s back in the position it was when the cop came anyway.”
As multiple Allston residents have echoed, it’s become one of the worst parts of the already traditionally exasperating ‘Allston Christmas’ season.
It’s not just residents who are frustrated. Merchants in the area are often denied the use of the sidewalk in front of their own businesses. Permission for outdoor patios requires what many say is a labyrinthine permitting process with the city. Even setting up a sandwich board advertising daily specials or entertainment events requires permitting. And businesses that post flyers on public property can be fined as much as $300.
In order to legally set up tents or tables on city sidewalks, businesses must apply for what is known as a ‘stationary vending license.’ That requires going to City Hall, filling out eight pages worth of paperwork, and then hoping to get approved for a permit for the ‘sale, storage, or display of goods.’ Several further permissions are required on top of that, including approval of the property owner, the ground floor tenant, the local police department, and the Public Works department. It sounds like a lot of work, though, admittedly, not as much work as canceling your Comcast service.
“I don’t understand how they get away with it,” McMahon said. “None of them have permits. As a musician I would have to get a permit to [perform]. Obviously it’s working and generating them a ton of money. Otherwise they wouldn’t be back this early and in droves.
“I walked by the same booth three times and got ‘Hi, are you happy with your services?’ all three times, Mallory Hestand, a musician who frequents Allston told me of a recent afternoon she spent in the area. “It’s extra annoying that they’re doing it before move-in day, so they’re asking full time residents who have all already gotten fucked over by these companies for years.”
An Allston/Brighton dispatcher from the Boston Police Department told me that police were aware of the tables, after having received calls yesterday. “They usually do that around when the kids are going back to school,” she said. “When we get a call, they handle it accordingly.”
Apparently word hadn’t made it to Boston Police headquarters, where media relations personnel said they hadn’t heard of the situation as of yet but were looking into it.
Outside Allston bar Great Scott, one Comcast rep told me they’d been instructed by the police to try to stay out of people’s way, but sure enough, walking around all four corners, I was approached each time, with one guy yelling out at me across the street to get my attention.
“Hey that’s a Mike Napoli beard!” he shouted, which is true enough, but not sure how that’s going to make me want to sign up for faster Internet and all premium channels. (I’m already a Comcast subscriber anyway, of course.)
Mark Goodman, a New England area Comcast PR rep, told me that they’ve been doing promotions, or “events” like this, as he calls them, for years, and are always careful to “follow city protocol.” Comcast, he explained, is doing more than 100 events around the city, from bigger ones (at area music festival Boston Calling), to, presumably, sidewalk table pitches.
Goodman couldn’t estimate how many people they have employed in the city at the moment chasing down new customers, but said there’s about 200 employees in Boston alone, including technicians. He wasn’t sure on what the specifics of the permitting process were this year.
According to the mayor’s office, Comcast did not, in fact, receive the proper permits for these promotions.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Comcast rep named Ryan was instructing his partners not to encroach on the property of Great Scott when I approached him. “We gotta respect their rules. They’re here 365 days a year. We’re here a couple weeks. We try to respect everyone’s rules.”
Ryan said he has been on Allston street corners from 4:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. for the past couple of days. Ryan works on commission. No sales means no pay. “Usually we have bigger tables… We didn’t get the permits this year,” he explained.
It’s not Ryan’s first time selling Comcast service from the street corners of Allston. He lives in New Hampshire, and has been coming back for the past four years along with, he estimates, a couple hundred, if not hundreds, of people like him. “We go anywhere that has a school district, he said. We basically stay as long as it’s worth it.”
“Basically anyone that wants cable, say international students, it helps to have them dealing with someone hands on, explaining to them what their options are. Options are a wonderful thing.”