Thursday, March 24, 2005

MC CCAC March '05 Meeting Highlights, Part 1

I attended my first CCAC meeting as a member of the public. One of the members asked me afterward if it was better that way. I think she meant it as a joke because I couldn't express my opinions freely the way I used to - although at one point I was recognized and allowed to speak. But the good news was that I could take notes more carefully. In the past, I could never take thorough notes on issues I cared about because I was too busy speaking or trying to interrupt so I could speak!

Oh, and the cookies. Audience members get to sit in the back next to the cookies. Some punishment, eh?

If you are wondering what "MC CCAC" is, it's the citizen committee appointed by the county (Montgomery County, Maryland) to provide advice to the County Executive and the County Council. CCAC stands for Cable something or other and the name is badly out of date. It's going to be renamed Communications something or other to reflect the committees true focus - it includes cable, towers, etc, basically anything communications related. Last year, for instance, we got a tour of the county's 911 facility as it relates to emergency communications. (Maybe I'll cover that in the future.) For all the times you've heard "This is a test of the Emergency Broadcasting ..." - well, it wasn't even used on 9/11. So much for emergency preparedness.

Ok, enough on background.

Comcast Resignations

Several resignations from our local Comcast staff:

Sue Reinhold, Executive VP and GM, Comcast of MC
Ellen Bogage, VP of Public Affairs, Comcast of MC
Lori Sherwood, VP of Government Affairs, Comcast of MC
Brian Edwards, Spokesperson, Comcast of MC

If this sounds like a major bloodletting, it should be no surprise. Although I felt the county was too easy on Comcast, MC did fine them numerous times and Comcast of MC had a very difficult time during the AT&TBI merger - after a lengthy process which cost them a lot of money, they were ultimately forced to agree to a less pleasant arrangement than they were used to. And the passage of 28-02 and 26-03 had to be a terrible blow to Comcast since it opened a Pandora's box for them across the entire US. Towards the end, Comcast stopped sending representatives to the CCAC meeting. Frankly, I can understand why. We used to ask for information on a regular basis and their usual response was "It's proprietary" or "We'll get back to you." In fact, that was a frequent response to the Cable Office's questions as well. (Comcast has recently begun sending Melody Khalatbari to our meetings. Melody is their manager of Community Affairs.)

After awhile, some of the Comcast reps didn't even speak to me. Ellen once explained that it felt personal. She repeatedly reminded me that I had caused her and her family anguish when I once posted a picture on a website of her passing an oversized check to Executive Duncan. The original caption in the newspaper was something about "Comcast raises money for bicycle helmets for kids." My recaptioning was something like "Comcast gives bribe to MC." As I repeatedly explained to Ellen each time she brought it up, Comcast is in essence taking money from subscribers and buying goodwill and photo-ops both for the local politicians and Comcast itself. And since Comcast is regulated by these same politicians, its seems terribly inappropriate for Comcast to participate in such photo-ops and fundraisers. She didn't see it that way.

I'm not sure what new careers most of them have. I do know that Brian Edwards took another spokesperson job - this time as spokesperson for MC Public Schools. I can't help thinking that's got to be an even tougher job. (I have a child in MCPS!) Good luck Sue, Ellen, Lori, and Brian.

It's Proprietary

Speaking of proprietary, Comcast is now obligated to provide us with customer service data on their internet service - a first in the US. Bill 26-03 requires Comcast to meet certain customer service standards such as how quickly customer support calls must be answered and routed to a live human, how quickly repairs are performed, and so on.) If performance is low enough, Comcast can be fined.

Comcast began turning over this information a few months ago but in January was upset to find out that the information was included in the public information packets at the county MFP meetings where Comcast's record is publicly reviewed. Comcast asserts that this information is proprietary and has started withholding the information from the county until they get a promise that it will not be released to the public.

Frankly, I think Comcast is being childish on this issue. I've seen the data and it's not even broken down by subscribers or geographic area. It's just overall aggregate information about the percentage that they are meeting the standards. For instance, in November '04 (the last month data was publicly available), Comcast completed 99% of repairs within 24 hours for video service and 95% of repairs for internet service.

As a comparison, over the same period Starpower completed 97% of repairs within 24 hours for both video and internet service. The disparity seems odd. One interpretation of those figures is that Starpower trains their staff on both internet and video service while Comcast trains them separately. Anyone else have an explanation?

It should be noted that Comcast and Starpower don't release the raw figures, so a good deal of massaging can take place to hide things before they are turned over to the county. As an example, Comcast removes all data during periods of abnormal conditions before computing those percentages. Starpower does not remove such figures. Unfortunately, the franchise allows such sloppiness.

Oh, you want to know what abnormal conditions are? Beats me. Probably anything Comcast doesn't control, like weather or maybe a Verizon telephone pole maliciously falling on a Comcast cable. As far as I'm concerned, these figures are a total joke.

Verizon FIOS, Under Scrutiny

The next meeting of the MFP committee (the subcommittee of the county council which oversees the cable companies) will be April 11 '05 at which time they will cover the Verizon FIOS construction. The Cable Office has already begun taking complaints even though they have no jurisdiction at this time. 22 complaints have been received so far.

One more statistic from the last MFP review: The #1 complaint type from both Comcast and Starpower for 2004 was ... (did you guess?) .... Billing. The County received 342 complaints about Comcast and 13 complaints about Starpower. (But don't interpret 342 to mean that's all the complaints that Comcast got. They probably got thousands; maybe even tens of thousands. These figures are just the people that complained the county.) How does this break down in percentage terms? Comcast's 342 complaints was .02% while Starpower's 13 complaints was .03%. I'm sure they will both brag that they're under 1% but it still sucks to be one of the 342 (and 13 in Starpower's case). Even worse, most people don't complain to the county either because they don't see the point, don't know the cable office cares, or don't want to spend any more time on the issue. So you can interpret 1% as a technically accurate but wildly imaginative indicator.

If you would to read the full package prepared for last quarter's MFP hearing, you can find it here. Warning: It's a 30 page PDF. But it's a gold mine of fascinating stuff.

More Highlights To Come

I probably made a few too many detours in preparing this blog entry and don't have the time to finish it tonight, so in the interest of quick publication, I'm publishing this one now as "Part 1". I will finish up my report in Part 2 (to come).

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Verizon FIOS - Laying Fiber, Wreaking Havoc

At the most recent MC Cable Communications Advisory Committee (CCAC) meeting, we continued our discussion over Verizon's massive county-wide installation of FIOS. As I mentioned earlier, Comcast had encountered numerous problems - at our previous meeting they described 92 line cuts that they believed were due to FIOS installers. The County Cable Office was concerned enough that they sent out their own inspectors, inspectors traditionally used by the County to inspect Comcast and Starpower work.

Although the committee had listened to Comcasts allegations, we had no proof and some of us were sceptical. Two members of the committee, Kernan Chaisson and Gabe Ruiz, volunteered to visit three Verizon worksites to investigate in person together with Comcast representatives who knew of Verizon activity in the area. I'll let the report speak for itself with an excerpt of the site-specific part:
Site 1: Lescot Terrace, Olney, Maryland

Installation crews had worked in the cul-de-sac the day before. There were reports of five cuts to Comcast lines during the work. There were also a reported three cuts to non-active lines in the area.

The resident at 16636 Lescot Terrace spoke to us about his experience the day before. He felt the crews were ignoring the MissUtility markings. Besides the Comcast damage, he said the crews pulled up a survey stake on his property and were installing a junction box on his property instead of in the public easement because they were using the wrong property plats. It appeared they used the tracks in the lawn made by the owner's dog as the property line. Verizon agreed to move the box off the private property. They cut through the 'invisible fence' that he had installed for his dog and was unable to get the CableCom worker to understand he should stop damaging the line because the only person who spoke English and the resident ended up having to repair the cable himself. he expressed concern about observing the crews hitting on the gas lines with their shovels. The resident reported that within 90 minutes of calling in the problem, Comcast had repaired his damaged cable. There were obvious marks of disturbance, but more work was to be done; so it was impossible to evaluate how well the area was being restore after the Verizon work.

Site 2: Debenham and Fox Valley Drive, Rockville, MD

Crews were actively working at this site in an area running along roughly three blocks. The area showed that installations were underway with equipment, conduit, and other materiel around and many holes dug along the side of the streets. The Line of Disturbance was roughly what could be expected from a job of this nature. It appeared that many of the homeowners were away, so there was no way to determine what outages had been caused by the work. A disturbing find was a worker sitting in a hole dug for installation of a junction box. he was in the process of splicing a TV cable. Mr. Ruiz was able to find out that the line has been cut while digging the hold for the junction. The young man said they decided to lengthen and reroute the Comcast cable. Mr. McNichol checked, there had been no trouble calls (although the homeowner seemed to be away). The CableCom worker said instructions were if it was a single line (to a subscriber's house) and not a trunk line just repair it and not call the damage in. The crew supervisor validated this instruction. The crews said this is what they were instructed on other jobs while working installations for Comcast in other areas; but Comcast had not approved this for this job. This patch compromises the integrity of the line by inserting connectors and new cable and exposing the line to possible mud contamination may show up as degraded digital or broadband performance or trouble sometime in the future.

Site 3: Gold Mine Road, Brookeville, MD

This was a restore side, work had been done days before. Restoration was sloppy, at best. There were spots that had apparently been dug up and had gress seed put down with a pile of straw over the top. At this site Comcast had run 1500' of cable above ground because there had been multiple cuts in the original cable. This got the subscribe back on line quickly, and a crew would come back to bury the line properly.

Clearly what they found was astonishing. Some crews were careless, rushing, and doing dangerous things such as cutting through cable and wires and hitting gas lines. Some of the workmen didn't speak English so residents were unable to communicate with them directly. And the policies of how to handle cable cuts were all over the place, and didn't make much sense, and in any case, at odds with official policy. (According to Verizon policy, crews are to report all cable cuts.) The idea of a Verizon workman taking it upon himself to lengthen, reroute, and reconnect a Comcast line (a trunk according to Comcast) was incredible. While some of the Verizon crewmembers may know how to splice cable properly, they don't have access to Comcast's boxes for proper testing. And even if they do get splices working at the time, all of these splices are underground, a harsh environment, and if they aren't done exactly right, they can work for a while, weeks, months, and then fail. Months later, the public will have long forgotten Verizon was mucking around in the neighborhood and Comcast will be left with stains on their reputation that they don't deserve.

Jane Lawton, MC Cable Office Adminstrator, remarked that when Comcast did its upgrade (a few years ago), the County sent out inspectors to accompany crews to see work was done properly and that this was an outcome of the difference between local and state inspection. I'm not sure what she meant by that - because obviously Comcast had many flawed installations - for example, our inspectors have reported improper grounding in Comcast installs for years! Perhaps what she meant was that her office doesn't have the authority to control Verizon and what they do. Verizon remains regulated only by the state while Comcast is regulated by the local franchise authority. (Of course, both are regulated to some extent by the FCC but the FCC doesn't do inspections!)

I've been observing Verizon's work in my own neighborhood and although I've seen some of the problems that the report noted (for example, many of the workers do not speak English so I could not ask them questions), I haven't heard complaints of cable cuts or sloppy work or for that matter, any complaints from neighbors in my area. In fact, the Verizon installers (that did speak English) were more than happy to speak to me about their work and seemed quite proud of it. They happily explained what they were doing and in some cases (like in front of my house, grrr) pointed out how the Comcast cabling in the same easements was not just sloppy but violated standard practice and should be rewired or replaced completely.

Here are some pictures I took showing what the Verizon crewmembers pointed out. In the first picture, someone must've inadvertently cut the line and instead of Comcast putting in a new drop, they spliced it (shown between red arrows).

The next picture shows the backside of the pole where Comcast had installed a splitter (3.5dB loss) instead of running separate drops. The splice and splitter went to my neighbor's house. The 'good' side of the splitter went to my house.

A few other notes

A Verizon foreman said that all homes are hung with door tags with a phone number to call for problems. But when we queried some residents, they denied ever getting any such tags.

Kernan reported that digging may be automatic up to 36" deep after which it must be hand done. In the digging I observed, it's a half and half process. A backhoe makes the crude holes, the crew roughs them out further, and then drop a missile-shaped device that is aimed horizontally and automatically chews from one hole to the next. To me, the 'missile' process looked extremely crude - just aim and let go. So marking out the underground utilities to avoid them later is crucial. However, that appears to be what's going wrong - all these cuts are either due to ignoring the markings or the markings being wrong from the get go.

Of course, incorrect markings may be Comcast's fault. Comcast is obliged to mark their own wires and if they choose not to or do so poorly, of course Verizon will slice through them. Probably there's a lot of sloppiness going on - on both the parts of Comcast and Verizon. As for things underground that the residents are responsible for, such as invisible fencing, that would never be marked by MissUtility. I'm not sure what the solution is there other than to avoid laying it in easements and other places that the utilities will 'obviously' need to use.

Gabe also mentioned a term I had never heard before: Exactions. He said that the county may require developers to install conduit or trenching which is to be shared. He provided a reference to "Code 50" which I will look up at some point to find out more.

The "Mr. McNichol" referenced above is Kevin McNichol, Director of Engineering for Comcast of Montgomery County.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is in some areas of the county, installation of FIOS by Verizon is causing serious problems. Comcast and other utilities may be part of the problem as well but clearly Verizon is at fault for sure. We're not close to the negotiations but according to Comcast statements, Verizon is reimbursing Comcast for costs related to any damage, so at least they're working together at some level. However, in the meantime, customers can have their service disrupted and potentially dangerous conditions can arise. It is for these reasons, that the city of Rockville has refused Verizon access to their rights-of-way. Verizon cannot get any permits to do installs in the city of Rockville and thus, Rockville residents will not getting FIOS for the foreseeable future.

Is Rockville doing the right thing and the rest of Montgomery County doing the wrong thing? Or vice versa?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Making my Odyssey start every time

This is a brief report on a something I did several years ago but remains relevant because people keep referring to it even today. Hence this blog entry which wraps up everything and also serve as a place to which others can link.

On, a forum for owners of the Honda Odyssey, many people have bemoaned the design of the electrical system which allows the battery to drain merely by leaving the cabin lights on overnight. This is made all the easier because of a dashboard switch which turns them all on and overrides all the other switches. Because of the design, it's all too easy to hit the switch intentionally (for example, to gather up your belongings before exiting the car) and then forget to turn it off as you get out. The result is that the following morning, you end up with a dead battery. I've done this four times now in two years!

Honda really didn't think this through. There are numerous timers on the car and some of them do protect the battery already. For example, the built-in Honda navigational computer has such a device. (You can see it in action by turning the key from the on position to the accessory position. After 10 minutes, a window will pop up on the NAV screen saying "turning off to protect battery" and then it will power itself off.) So the circuitry exists but in the wrong place!

Several people at Odyclub have come up with different ideas for solving the problem but the one I like best is the Priority Start (which I'll refer to as PS for now). PS is a device that monitors the car battery and can tell the difference between when the car is running and when it isn't. If the car isn't running (meaning the battery can't be recharged), then the PS lets the battery continue to be used up to the point where further use would make it impossible to restart the car.

I ordered mine over the web from They had the best prices at the time.

Installation was simple. The PS uses only 3 connections and no wire cutting is involved (although I did cut a few cable ties to get enough slack in order to position the unit in front of the battery). Total installation time was 15 minutes and most of that was rereading the instructions to make sure I hadn't missed something because it seemed too simple and straightforward. Here's a pic of the result.

In the picture, the positive cable connects to the PS in front of the battery and then the PS has a cable that connects back to the positive side of the battery. There's also a tiny wire from the PS to the negative side of the battery. In the picture, it has a green label on it - which I've since removed and replaced with my own more-meaningful label.

A concern I had is that anyone else working on the car understand what the unit is and how to properly disconnect it. I made up a little laminated tag and attached it to the ground wire to explain to remove that first and not to forget to reconnect it. Here's a link to it: prioritystart.pdf It's a pdf so you can resize it to any size you like.

PostScript 1

Since I installed the PS two years ago, it's saved my ass three times, allowing me to just get in and drive away in the morning. It's caused no trouble and is well worth what I paid for it.

PostScript 2

I called AAA and asked if they could make PriorityStart available with a discount to their customers. I pointed out that I had already called them 4 times for jumps. Figuring, oh, $50 a shot minimum, they could save hundreds each year by just GIVING me a PriorityStart for a free.

AAA said: "No." At the time, I figured they were idiots and maybe they just needed to hear from others.

In retrospect, AAA wants to keep their costs low but on the other hand, if people realized they would never again need a jump start, many people might reconsider buying AAA in the first place. Jump starts are the only service I've ever used AAA for. (Not needed their bail service yet!)

PostScript 3

I've continued to order other batteries from BatteryMart (camcorder, camera, computer, etc). Prices and delivery times are excellent and their breadth of batteries is amazing. I've never had to call customer service so I can't tell you about that.

Monday, March 07, 2005

What's FIOS?

A commenter recently asked: What's FIOS?

FIOS is Verizon's marketing term for "fiber to the home" (the generic term is just its abbreviation: FTTH). Verizon plans to deliver internet, video, and phone service over fiber. Why is this good? Because fiber has more capacity (way more capacity) than anything else.

Verizon plans to roll out this service over the next few years to the same areas it already offers local service. It's currently installing fiber in a number of states including my own. Where I live (Montgomery County MD), Verizon has been installing fiber for about 4 months and they've already turned it on for some customers.

FIOS is going to be a rude shock for the cable companies that have enjoyed a de facto monopoly in much of the US. Where I live, Comcast is the only provider of high-speed residential internet service, so I pay $57.95 a month. But Verizon is already advertising more speed for less money.

Here's how it lays out, ordered by price. Notice that the lowest price is way below Comcast's lowest (and most popular) level of service AND at that price FIOS is faster. Especially notable is the dramatically higher upload speed. I really like that. When I upload pictures or documents, it takes a long time because my Comcast upload is so limited. And I do it so infrequently, it's hard to justify paying $10 more for additional speed. But Verion's lowest cost offering blows Comcast's highest offering away too.

Verizon FIOS$199.9530Mbps5Mbps
Comcast HSI$67.956Mbps768Kbps
Comcast HSI$57.954Mbps384Kbps
Verizon FIOS$49.9515Mbps2Mbps
Verizon FIOS$39.955Mbps2Mbps

Comcast does offer $15 reductions if you also get video service but even factoring that in, Comcast is still more expensive (and slower). I don't have Comcast video service so I'm paying the full freight. Lopping off $18 from my monthly bill sounds great to me. And faster service at the same time? Bring it on!

What's the downside?
Although Comcast doesn't have the greatest reputation, neither does Verizon. They never rolled out DSL to many of their customers despite years of promises to do so. And I dropped my Verizon phone service two years ago because their prices were too high and continued to rise while my use of their product continued to sink. Clearly, the lack of competition didn't help. For example - how else could they get away with charging $7.50 a month for caller id? And their customer service stunk. The phones were supposed to work 24 hours a day but yet Verizon didn't answer their own phones 24 hours a day? Why not? Surely the demand was there.

But competition changes everything. Studies show that in communities with broadband alternatives, rates are significantly lower. Comcast will have to respond in some way. Technologically, it's going to be hard to increase speeds to match Verizon. It's my understanding that Comcast's infrastructure simply won't support those speeds without upgrading their cable plant. What's left? Slashing prices?

Extra benefits such as video email, free music downloads, etc, are worth little to most people. I don't use any of them. I don't even use Comcast for email service. High speed and low latency are all I want. Ok, a lot of people want email too but I think they'd be better off getting it elsewhere.

The bottom line
I'm not expecting all my neighbors to jump off Comcast and sign up with Verizon. But I expect enough will that Comcast will have to react. Competition is good. Verizon's entry in to the market will force Comcast to lower their prices and/or increase their performance. Improved customer service would be helpful, too.