Monday, May 23, 2005

Verizon Begins Formal Franchise Negotiations in Montgomery County

On Wednesday, May 18 2005, I attended the monthly meeting of the MC CCAC, the County's Citizen Advisory committee on telecomm issues. The meeting was relatively brief (in topics, not time) since we had a guest speaker and that left little time for anything else.

Comcast Deals

Comcast is offering a nice discount for its existing HSI customers. 12 months at $29.95/month. For customers who only have internet service (like me), that's a discount of almost 50% off the regular price of $57.95 - wow! Clearly, this is in response to Verizon's presence in the county. Isn't competition grand?

So how will Verizon deal with this? I'll get to that later. First ...

Verizon Starts Franchise Negotiation

Finally, the county has announced it has officially entered into negotiations with Verizon for a cable TV franchise. This was long expected but it represents a milestone for several reasons. First, it means competition in yet another way with Comcast and Starpower. Second it means more regulation for Verizon, regulation in a way that they've never had before, albeit with a new profit potential. Third, it is an encouraging sign that Verizon's fiber is here to stay.

In some ways, Verizon has made a very low key entrance causing people to wonder if their fiber solution will be here for the long term. However, it's clearly the way to go. Unlike other technologies, fiber has no limit to speeds or customer reach and it will open themselves up to higher profits as they are able to sell "advanced" services with higher profit potential. Speaking of low key, the Washington Post ran an article on FIOS ("FiOS Speeds Up Web, Phone and TV Access", 5/8/05) describing "The company has been quietly rolling out the network since least year, with next to no advertising... Verizon spokesperson Sharon Cohen-Hagar said last week that the company has not been trumpeting the service much beyond the neighborhoods where it is available, in the hopes of managing customer expectations."

"next to no advertising" must mean something different to different people. I was in Montgomery Mall in Bethesda last week and found that many of the tables in the common dining area had been refaced with huge FIOS graphics. How could you miss that! And, at my home, I've received a flyer every week for the past four weeks telling me service was now available and I should call. Alas, I have called, most recently last week and it's always the same: No, you cannot get service. Sorry - we're not responsible for our marketing department. We can't tell them to stop sending you flyers, sir.

Let's be mindful that most of the complaints about Comcast are about customer service (most about billing). Most people would think it's technical issues but it isn't. So Verizon has got to get their act together with how they deal with the customer, otherwise people are just going to write them off as just another big company that doesn't give a damn. The reason so many people have turned to satellite isn't so much because of Comcast's video quality but because of Comcast's customer service and price. But if Verizon treats the customer properly, they can do well despite Comcast's price specials.

Personally, I'm looking forward to Verizon higher speeds, especially the upload speeds. And I'm hoping that the reliability is better. But I think the general population wants better customer service. And that includes accurate information. This current stuff is a terrible sign - having web pages that don't work reliably, having web pages that insist you enter a phone number and won't accept an address, operators not putting you on a callback list when marketing has already contacted you, operators not offering evening hours which is when many people first see the postcards and for some people is the only time they can call, and giving out contradictory info. The postcards say that you don't need POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) but everyone I've spoken to who has successfully gotten service has POTS (or signed up for it to get FIOS), and Verizon is now saying that if you sign up with FIOS while having POTS, you can't drop the POTS. There also seems to be a question about retaining copper service if people are dissatisfied with FIOS. I know many people who don't want to give up their copper - at least initially - until they've been on the fiber for some time. But what Verizon appears to be saying is that once your phone is moved to fiber, it's never going back. Don't get me wrong - that doesn't bother me. But it does bother others - especially the older folks.

Verizon - hear this: You need to you get your customer service right. Otherwise, people won't see any reason to switch from Comcast even if they despise it already.

Franchise Negotiation

A few more comments about the franchise negotiation. Right now, the county lawyers are meeting with the Verizon lawyers. Verizon will probably ask to get parts of the franchise waived and the county will presumably refuse. This will drag on a while. Verizon also has to answer questions about their system and their finances. We'll likely see more jockeying over this - Comcast was outstanding at refusing to provide direct answers to questions about their finances - and this will further delay things.

Another kink is that no one (probably not even Verizon) is sure of what their video service will be. My understanding is that it will be quite unlike traditional cable and more like satellite - with the tuning done even further upstream - at a headend (meaning everyone will have to have a set-top box, sigh). So this opens up questions regarding basic service (the regulated tier) that we've never seen before and these questions need to be resolved.

The county has also learned its lesson with mistakes they made in previous franchises and may take this opportunity to correct these mistakes. The way this will work is that such improvements to the franchise will also have to be agreed by all the other franchisees. So this could delay things even more.

Further down the road, after the County Executive is satisfied, the Council will then hold hearings. (For reasons I've never understood, hearings by the Executive are optional.) And at that point, the public may weigh in and be ignored. Certainly, that was the case with the recent Comcast re-franchise. (People expressed excellent suggestions on how to improve the franchise but the Executive didn't take any of them.)

So how long is this going to take? Look for passage by the end of the year. Actual implementation is anyone's guess. I'm not aware of Verizon rolling out their video service anywhere at this point, even experimentally. Anyone know different?

Council Actions

The Council and Executive are having a terrible time trying to produce a budget. Part of this is driven by our exorbitant taxes and people finally complaining loudly enough for politicians to take notice. I don't claim to understand much of this but what I do understand is that the pols are playing lots of games with the money to make the numbers balance with the least amount of pain (or the most subterfuge). And by "least amount of pain", I mean for themselves. (Our taxes are still headed up.) Case in point: monies from cable franchise fees are not to be used for anything but cable-related projects in the county. However, "cable related" has become rather more loosely interpreted with each passing year. For example, this year the county has begun using cable funds for transcription services. The transcription services include closed captioning so I guess that the transcription was justified as cable-related on the basis that a small chunk of it was to be used on the PEG channels. Yet, traditional transcription service (the expensive part) doesn't go on any cable channel and has nothing to do with cable. Don't get me wrong - I think the transcription service is a great idea. But I don't think it should be paid out of cable fees.

A second type of subterfuge is the "borrowing" of franchise fees by the county for general appropriations. The county did this two years ago and is doing it again this year, this time to the tune of $500K. They are obligated to pay it back. Or are they? Like the Social Security lockbox, I doubt we will ever see that money again. At the same time, the money borrowed means that expenditures out of the cable fund will not occur. The 500K would have paid for fiber connections to the county's middle schools. So sorry, kids.

Somewhat off topic but still speaking of council actions, did anyone catch the Council's move to strip Executive Duncan of his power to distribute millions of dollars in grants to arts organizations? Duncan has reaped thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to the very same groups that he's been giving funding to! For example, Duncan's budget called for $500,000 in funding to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra but according to the Washington Post, members of the BSO board have contributed at least $12,000! Clearly, the council didn't like this behavior so they have designated the county's Arts and Humanities Council, a private nonprofit, to allocate arts grants for the next fiscal year. (They also lowered Duncan's requested $6.9M budget for the arts to about $5M.)

Cable Office Notes

Jane Lawton, Cable Office Administrator for MC presented the latest statistics on complaints. In short, complaints about Comcast are up significantly - roughly 50% more complaints in April than in March. Jane was unclear as to what's going on - I got the impression it simply wasn't clear to the Cable Office but they are diligent watchers of Comcast and will report back in a month.

Jane also reported that inspectors went out to re-inspect problems that the County had previously warned about, that the problems still weren't corrected despite Comcast's assertions that they were. This has been a problem in past years and the county has actually fined Comcast over it. But it sounded like the County wasn't going to issue another fine just yet.

Jane mentioned her interest in the LA's new customer service bill of rights. This is something I've been meaning to look into myself. Marilyn Praisner has started the ball rolling to re-authorize the legislation for the Cable Compliance Commission so it makes sense that the Council will be able to take input based on LA's law in the re-authorization process.

Councilmember Marilyn Praisner

Councilmember Marilyn Praisner is an important ally in cable consumer protection and she paid the committee a visit during its meeting. In fact, she spoke for over an hour, talking about her ideas and encouraging the CCAC to continue its good work. As she observed, "Local governments don't have the time, budget and manpower to take on the industry. It is only with citizen help that we even stand a change."

She talked about an extremely broad span of topics, from Strathmore to RCN locking up more Nats games. But most of what she said was old news - I've mentioned it in various forms in this and previous blog entries - so I won't bore you with more of it. One new item though is that Marilyn is interested in VoIP and wants to have a forum, specifically on E911 issues. This is certainly a topic dear to me, as I recently tested my own VoIP-based E911. This topic is also timely because the FCC is also in the process of trying to come to terms with whether or not it should regulate E911. Alas, the Congress looks like it's going to force the issue down our throats, a position in which I'm not at all in agreement. Prepare yourself for new taxes!

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Stay Informed

You may frequently hear me complain about the lack of timely notification from the local government regarding ...oh, just about anything. During my tenure on the CCAC, it was a frequent occurrence to hear that public opinion was solicited in only a week or two. Needless to say, we missed most of these deadlines. It was simply impossible to get a committee to agree on a position AND agree on its wording in such a short amount of time. Equally irritating was the lack of ability to inform the general public in a timely way.

As an example, when the County Executive proposed his regulations on cable modem service, the Executive's own advisory committee was only informed of the public hearing 10 days before the hearing. This despite it having been scheduled 30 days earlier! And despite it being of obvious interest - to the body which originally motivated its existence! Not surprisingly, there were no members of the community giving testimony except the ones ones that we (or the cable companies) informed ourselves.

So why doesn't the County Executive or the Cable Office do a better job of informing the citizenry? After all, the county has email lists for all sorts of things. For example, I'm on an official county mailing list that tells me when my weekly garbage pickup is delayed! But none for keeping citizens aware about telecomm issues?

When I served on the advisory committee, I went so far as to create a yahoogroup for the purpose. I even got some county officials to agree to be on it. But not long after, I was told that it couldn't be an 'official' forum and that the 'CCAC' had to be removed from its name. And the officials got the word and refused to post to it. Instead, we were told that the county would provide a mailing list that would run on the county servers so they could be in complete control. Well ok, maybe it would be worth giving up the discussion aspect if we could only get timely announcements. But the county never delivered on such a mail list despite our repeated requests.

So how does one stay informed on telecomm issues in Montgomery County? Alas, there is no one best way. Even this blog is not comprehensive (sorry). But I'm trying to help. And as part of that, here are some tips on how to stay informed:
  1. Read broadbandreports. It's one of several places that has forums where people can ask questions and get answers. Unfortunately, it's not well organized (the old "trying to drink from a fire hydrant" analogy comes to mind). Specifically, it lacks any way to just learn things specific to Montgomery County (including relevant national events). But it is nonetheless invaluable for what it does provide.

  2. The Montgomery County Register is a publication that lists many of the significant government actions that the MC Executive. The example I gave earlier regarding the cable modem regulations were listed in the Register and nowhere else. So I consider it essential to be on their mail list. It is available electronically but so ineptly (only part of it, no automated procedure for being notified of updates, and is a month behind) that getting it physically is the only sensible option even though it means you have to physically wade through the booklet every month. To be placed on the mailing list for the MC Register, call the Office Services Coordinator at 240 777-2537. Or write to Executive Regulation Process Manager, office of the County Executive, Executive Office Building, 2nd floor, 101 Monroe St, Rockville, MD 20850 with your name, address, and telephone numbers (home and work).

  3. The Montgomery County Council has an electronic notification service to receive emails about Council agenda and other material. Alas, it doesn't appear to include most of the things that it should include but hopefully my complaints to them about it will pay off eventually.

    I wish I could supply direct links to the various MC web pages but the URLs are clearly not meant to be published. They are machine generated and could change at any time . Thus, I recommend you start at the top of their website and navigate to what you need. For example, to get to the council's e-subscription service, start at and click on County Council, and then look for the e-subscriptions link. For the Register, the only way I've found to get that is by entering Register in the search box. There's no direct link to it.

  4. Some of the County's hearings are televised and archived. Unlike the earlier links, there is a short link for this however it's too tricky to navigate too (in fact, I tried today and couldn't find it! So I emailed the county webmaster for the link. Here it is:
  5. By the way, later this year, the video service will include transcriptions. For now, you have to make them yourself.
  6. The council agendas are made available electronically a week or so before each hearing. You can find this linked from the council web page (ok, I did come up with an official shortcut for the council page). Click on the links labeled with background material and you'll get the briefing notes and other material that the council staff prepare for the council members.

  7. I wasn't intending to provide links other than MC but I will pass on a link for Verizon that I think few people know about and might otherwise be hard to find. If you go to their regular link, you'll get the usual stuff including a page that allows you to check for availability by entering your phone number. However, it doesn't work for people who don't have Verizon phone service. For that you can check by address - but not by any form that's easily findable. The solution is this page: Alternatively, you can call 888-438-3467 and ask.