One month ago, Comcast General Manager Craig Snedeker sent a letter to the County Executive asking for him to stop issuing permits to Verizon and order Verizon to stop all work on their FIOS project. Comcast stated that in Montgomery County alone, Verizon had cut over 400 Comcast lines. Snedeker wrote "in its haste to deploy its new network, Verizon is ignoring many basic safety and construction standards" and that "indicates a total reckless disregard for safety and property" and Verizon had caused service outages to thousands of Comcast subscribers throughout Maryland. Wow!
Verizon admitted that they were responsible for some cuts but much fewer than Comcast claimed. In addition, Verizon asserted that Comcast was to blame for some of the cuts and furthermore, Comcast technicians had been cutting Verizon lines!
The county declined to act on Comcast's request. The reasons why came out during the July 25 Quarterly review of the cable franchises. Here's what happened.
July 25th Quarterly Review Of Montgomery County Franchisees
Cable Administration Jane Lawton started out with a litany of requirements of which Comcast was out of compliance. For example, in April, Comcast performed 90% of all repairs within 24 hours. However, the franchise agreement requires they be at the 95% level. It would have been even worse except that Comcast hasn't provided the required statistics for the rest of the 2nd quarter (May and June). In fact, Comcast hasn't provided the required statistics for cable modem service since October '04 - when they were first required to do so.
It's not clear why Comcast believes it makes sense to withhold these statistics; nor can I fathom why the Council is putting up with their behavior. Comcast will lose in the end and it's just pissing off the Council. Eventually the Council will run out of patience and the county will fine the company.
In the meantime, it quickly became clear that the county and the Council are not on good speaking terms. Comcast sent Melody Khalatbari to defend their position. To many of the questions, Melody answered with (in essence) "I don't know." She didn't know the answer to privacy issues, staff issues, billing issues, or much of anything, nor did the other representatives that accompanied her. The Comcast General Manager chose not to attend. As the man brought in last year to fix all of their problems, this seemed like another slap in the face to the Council.
Complaints that are not resolved by Comcast can be registered with the County Cable Office. For the 1st quarter of '05, the Cable Office received 260 complaints, an increase of 10%. For the 2nd quarter, the Cable Office received the astounding number of 515 complaints, almost TRIPLE the number from last year.
While RCN's complaints have been going down, Comcast's have been climbing ever higher. In June, Comcast had 265 complaints (equal to the total number in their first quarter)! In July (actually, to July 22nd, just prior to the meeting), Comcast already had 326 complaints, and there were another 26 complaints the morning of the meeting!
So could this all be blamed on Verizon? No. But let there be no mistake. Verizon has caused a lot of damage to cable lines as well as electrical and gas lines. According to Comcast, the Washington Post (5/7/05) reported Verizon had cut into water mains 54 times in the past year. (Getting personal attention was Councilmember Knapp whose neighborhood had its electrical lines cut by Verizon. And since they are on well water with electric pumps, that means that even things like toilets became inoperable.)
So how can Verizon cause all this damage and yet not be responsible? Well, of course it is, but what's becoming very clear is that Comcast is responsible for a large amount of their own problems. For example, they don't mark their own lines reliably. When Verizon plans to dig in an area, they are required to contact MS Utility which in turn contacts the utilities and has them mark their lines. If Comcast doesn't mark their own lines or does so inaccurately, it should be no surprise when Verizon cuts Comcast's lines. Or when Comcast doesn't bury their lines deep enough, they can also be cut because they're not where they are expected. Evidentally, this happens a lot.
Furthmore, a lot of the complaints filed against Comcast have nothing to do with service cuts that could be blamed on Verizon. There are plenty of the usual complaints: untrained technicians, no service appointments available, missed appointments, incorrect bills, customers being hung up on. Four members of the public were allowed to describe individual complaints and it was apparent that all of them were the direct responsibility of Comcast. (The citizens were from Chevy Chase, Rockville, Potomac, and Silver Spring.) I personally testified - my testimony can be found in my previous blog entry.
After the public was allowed to testify, the council interrogated Comcast and the Comcast representatives repeatly came up short. Some other observations that came up:
Returned Phone Calls
Members of the public repeatedly complained about promises to return phone calls that were not kept by Comcast. Frankly, I'm used to this treatment. But even Cable Administrator Jane Lawton got in on the act. When the Adminstrator of the franchise can't get her phone calls returned regarding the public safety network (Fibernet), something is seriously wrong.
Comcast Refuses To Provide Info
As part of its franchise agreement, Comcast is required to provide certain information about its operation each quarter. Comcast is not providing all the information - particularly the information that the county uses to determine whether Comcast is in compliance. So instead of the county fining Comcast for being out of compliance of services specifications, the county will have to fine them for being out of compliance for not providing complete information. (Most notably, Comcast has not provided any cable modem statistics since they were first required to do so in October of '04.) What does Comcast expect to gain here?
Comcast observed that they were hiring more people and at the same time increasing outsourcing to two companies in Texas (Convergys) and Canada (Newcom). However under questioning, Comcast made no attempt to claim that these representatives understood that Montgomery County's had different requirements and procedures than other Comcast franchises. I've encountered this myself, for example, when requesting credits for outages. (The outsourced reps always give the wrong amount for video rebates.)
Complaints Closed Early
When a citizen complains to the county, Comcast has been deciding on their own when they've successfully dealt with the complaint. They don't call the customer to ask if their satisfied. Nor can the county always find out the disposition. In some cases, the customer gets a form letter and that's it.
Supervisors Are No Better
Yours truly pointed out that even the supervisors were lacking knowledge of rules and procedures. And they appeared to be treating customers no better than the front-line representatives.
I also asked for a system-wide audit. Given my own complaints, I think there's good reason to believe I'm not the only customer given incorrect bills. Most people I speak to don't have the persistence to understand their bills. Even my colleagues at NIST (most of whom are highly skilled scientists) do not try to understand the bills. They just pay them. I find people paying more than they should. Multiply the estimated 220,000 customers times a couple of 99c discrepancies over 12 months produces an easy $2 million a year. Yes, an audit is appropriate!
Comcast had 1500 construction violations in the 1st quarter of 2005, an increase of 16% from the previous quarter. In the 2nd quarter, Comcast had 1900 violations, an increase of 27%. Construction violations include things like safety issues such as ungrounded cables. Comcast was also noted for longstanding temporary cables (particularly in Avenel) and not burying cables deeply enough to prevent homeowners or landscapers from cutting through them.
There were 361 complaints unresolved at the date of the meeting.
The percentages that I mentioned earlier (for example, 95%) is relative. Comcast removes data before computing those percentages that can be blamed on abnormal conditions, such as weather. So their own performance claims have to be read with a grain of salt.
For their previous quarters, Comcast paid fines of $4,650 and $900 in the 1st and 2nd quarters. Yep, that's it.
Frankly, I do not understand why the county is not fining Comcast over the lack of reporting. Oddly, the Council didn't follow up on this during questioning.
Councilmember Denis noted that Comcast is placing full page ads for marketing and sales personnel but none for technicians. Why is Comcast overselling their service? What happened to the business motto: Your current customers are your best customers.
The Cable Office noted a huge backlog in the "free" drops Comcast is obligated per the franchise to provide to libraries, schools, pools, etc. And in the last two months, Comcast has adopted a new policy - that it will no longer provide the county with for-pay installation work (such as cable sockets). Instead, the county will have to hire outside contractors.
Cable Advisory Committee
According to Shep Bostin, Chair of the county's citizen advisory committee for cable and telecommunications, most people in the county are not even aware that there is a county cable office to serve as an advocate on their behalf. Sounds right to me. Most people I know don't even realize that they are entitled to rebates for outages.
Comcast's Tech Training
According to Ray Ness, Comcast Technical Operations Director, training a technician consists of 8 weeks of class training followed by 2 weeks of "assisted" field training. Hmm.
What were Comcast's responses to these questions and criticisms?
It was short but sweet: 1) Ripple effects from the extra work caused by Verizon's cuts. 2) Weather. (Council member Andrews noted that he recalled Comcast using weather as an excuse at almost every quarterly review.) 3) Comcast's own technical work to enhance reliability.
To improve the situation, Melody said Comcast was doing the following:
- Hiring more CAEs and trying to deploy them at peak times. Same for supervisors.
- Listening in on a greater percentage of customer calls.
- Outsourcing a great number of calls.
- Increasing the hours of home visits from 8am-8pm to 7am-9pm
- Changing from 3 hour windows to 2 hour windows.
- Trying to arrange a course for cable techs at the local community college.
Jim Robinson, Acting Director of Customer Service
Kevin McNichol, Director of Engineering
Ray Ness, Technical Operations of the Regional Team
They were able to answer a few questions that Melody didn't know herself but all together not many questions were answered.
What Melody Didn't Know
As I mentioned earlier, Melody didn't have answers to most of the questions she got (even with her experts by her side). There were so many "I don't knows" that I decided to enumerate them here:
- With respect to the four citizens, Melody didn't know the details.
- Melody didn't know the date the May/June reporting would be delivered to the county.
- Melody didn't know when the cable modem reporting would be delivered to the county.
- Melody had no excuse for the abusive representatives.
- Melody didn't know anything about representatives cancelling appointments without customer agreement.
- Melody didn't know why salespeople were being recruited with heavy advertising with no comparable ads for techs.
- Melody didn't know on what basis Comcast was closing cases of customer complaints or on what basis they were sending closure letters.
- Melody didn't know why the Comcast representative for emergency Fibernet was not returning calls despite the 15 issues being raised at a joint meeting and being raised again with Comcast General Manager Snedeker. Melody had no knowledge of the 15 issues.
- Melody didn't know why Comcast wasn't providing complete and accurate current construction maps, despite this being required by the franchise. She passed the question to Kevin McNichol who blamed it on software issues that were being worked out.
- Melody did not know what percentage of customer calls were being outsource and how long this would continue
I was quite surprised that the Comcast representative was unable to answer so many questions. I don't condemn her for this - she wasn't trying to be evasive, she just didn't know anything. Rather, the Comcast General Manager is clearly to blame. The buck stops with him and he wasn't around to defend his position regarding the Verizon complaint nor was he present to answer to all the other issues raised by the Council.
Comcast GM Craig Snedeker was brought in last year to fix all the problems in MC MD, yet there is little evidence of him doing so. Complaint levels are higher than ever (3x last year's!) and communication between the county and Comcast appears to be broken, much like the "walled garden" in which Comcast placed my cable modem a few weeks back for no reason at all.
Comcast is a powerful company with real strengths. Yet they appear to be throwing it all away. The blame-Verizon strategy isn't working. Comcast had a huge advantage as the de facto monopoly in MC. But if they keep running their system into the ground, it's hard to imagine why customers will continue to put up with their abusive service. If that recent Page 1 article in the Washington Post wasn't a wake-up call, I don't know what is.
One of the statistics Comcast won't divulge is the number of cable modem customers they have in MC. I don't know what the number is either but I'm pretty confident that, if Comcast continues their current strategy, a year from now that number is going to be a whole lot less.
One last note: RCN is now Starpower. Starpower is now RCN. Confused? RCN bought out the 50% stake of Starpower originally owned by Pepco. This buyout led to a fair amount of confusion by customers. That and rollouts of anti-spam software and improvements in hardware were given for the high number of complaints this year. (Should I pay my bill to another company?) Of course, "high" is a relative term. RCN's complaints increased from 13 during the same period last year to 16 this year however their rate went down in the 2nd quarter. Unfortunately, complaints as a percentage of total customers is proprietary, but clearly RCN has much fewer customers than Comcast.)
PS: "RCN" is the marketing brand name. "Starpower" is the legal name. Still confused? Sorry, that's the best I can do.