Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Free Wireless In MC

Could MC be joining the enlightened and rolling out free wireless? Well, let's just say .... slowly. WiFi is now available in almost all of MC's public libraries. WiFi has also been made available in downtown Silver Spring. Sort of. Actually, it's just along the streets. Here's a coverage map:

During my time on the county's communications advisory committee, I proposed the deployment of free wireless in all of MC's downtown areas, starting with Rockville. (I figured that would be an easy sell, given the government was based there.) The Executive's representative wasn't receptive to the other idea though, claiming it would expose the county to a lawsuit from its franchisees because of the obvious conflict.

Has some rule bending occurred? Because the county is now clearly taking credit for establishing SS WiFi. A press release subtitled "Montgomery County Wi-Fi Vision" says:
Montgomery County has taken a nationwide leadership position in the use of information technology in providing services to our community. The Community Wi-Fi initiative is designed to leverage the County’s information technology infrastructure further by providing no-cost community Internet access where it currently does not exist – in our open-air public places. Wi-Fi’s rapid adoption by government, business, and individual users creates a ready community of users looking for Internet access wherever they are. The County believes that providing such access may be efficiently and economically accomplished. This endeavor demonstrates Montgomery County’s commitment to the substantial benefits that broadband information access brings to the community.
Leadership? Evidentally, the county hasn't heard of roughly 100 community WiFi projects including some biggies like Philadelphia and Milwaukee. (By the way, Philly is also the headquarters for Comcast.) Philly WiFi covers 135 sq. miles - the entire city of Rockville is less than a tenth that size. Indeed, that would cover more than 25% of Montgomery County!

In fact, telecomm lobbyists are hard at work bending elbows trying to get legislation passed that would prohibit municipalities from offering internet services such as WiFi and some states have already allowed such legislation to pass. (Not Maryland though.) And broadly available WiFi still seems like a fine idea here. Studies strongly indicate that broadband is good for business and can be deployed at little or no cost to taxpayers. And given the lack of businesses offering it, why shouldn't local government step up and offer it?

Silver Spring

So how was Silver Spring chosen for WiFi? According to another press release, County Executive Duncan said "Silver Spring was chosen as our first public outdoor hotspot because of its emergence as the county’s technological and entertainment center."

Technological? I had no idea Silver Spring was a technological center. When did this happen? And I thought Bethesda was supposed to be the entertainment center. Surely $100 million on Strathmore must count for something! Ok, I admit - Strathmore is in North Bethesda but still - when did Silver Spring outdo all the great stuff in Bethesda (and, ahem, South Rockville)?

But the part of the press release I like best is the statement by Alisoun Moore (MC's Chief Information Officer) saying " Ubiquitous internet access is fast becoming a ‘requirement’ in our digital economy..." immediately followed by this:
There are no approval requirements, encryption settings, user names or passwords required and no guarantee of performance privacy or reliability.
So not only doesn't the county understand the meaning of ubiquitous (since availability is obviously only in a tiny area) but neither does it understand requirement since the disclaimer makes very clear there is no guarantee that it will be available when needed.

It's now been 6 months since WiFi was deployed in Silver Spring. Will that ubiquity ever be extended to Rockville? Or that entertainment-black hole of Bethesda? Or anywhere else in the county? Or are we all just technological backwaters?

The answer it seems is only if private companies step forward. As far as I can tell, the only reason MC can take credit for WiFi in Silver Spring is because Atlantech Online is footing the bill for establishing the network and access points. Guess what - their offices are in Silver Spring. Ah, no wonder the county was happy to blithely recast Silver Spring as the technological center of the county!

So there you have it. The county apparently did almost no work other than to draw up the press release. So much for "demonstrating Montgomery County's commitment." Want WiFi in your downtown area or anywhere else in the county? Don't go looking for that vaunted Montgomery County commitment - unless it's a commitment to rename your downtown area the technological center of the county in exchange for your hardware and hard work.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Another Free Movie

Two weeks ago, I offered readers a free On Demand Movie from Comcast. I just received another (thanks Comcast!) so it's time to do it all again. Simply post your location on the this blog's frappr map and you're eligible. (If you are already on the map, don't do anything - you're already entered.) I will select the winner based on the number of minutes that Comcast has me on hold next time my service goes down and I call to complain.

PS: To everyone who no longer has Comcast service or doesn't have a Comcast set-top box and therefore cannot make use of the free movie, don't worry - I have the next prize ready (also graciously contributed by Comcast - can you guess what it is? And what do you think their promotional budget is anyway?) and it can be used by anyone - even if you're a Verizon customer!

Friday, January 20, 2006

FIOS - Good News Bad News

Good News

First, the good news: David Li has won the Frappr contest and will be receiving the free Comcast movie. David, just email me your address and I'll send you the coupon.

I plan to give away more of the crap that Comcast keeps sending me to people who list themselves on the Frappr. So sign up if you haven't already. Everyone on the map is eligible. For those of you that cannot make use of such prizes, peace of mind should be enough. ... Ok, I'll come up with something else.

Bad News

Since I last wrote about the subject of Verizon TV, here's what's happened ... oh, wait, do you want the short version or the long version?

Short version:

Long version: There's been no progress. And it's even worse than that.

Details (If You Really Want To Call Them That)

According to discussion at Wednesday evening's CCAC meeting, there has been a breakdown in communications between the county and Verizon. Negotiations have come to a complete standstill. Let me repeat: Complete. Total. No one is calling anyone else. A Cable Office official had doubts whether Verizon will even show up at the next MFP meeting.

The Cable Office, the Council, the CCAC, the Public - all appear to be out of the loop. We were left with a lot of speculation. So who is in the loop? County Executive Duncan - and he's busy running his campaign to be the next governor of Maryland. (Get this - his campaign motto: Think Bigger. Hmm, bigger overdevelopment, bigger traffic jams, bigger taxes? He really wants us to think about this?)

Executive Duncan has not issued any statements regarding the franchise. He has not held hearings for public input as he did for the Comcast franchise. (He didn't even attend his own meeting with the CCAC and CCC. It's only once a year - is that such a burden?)

What's Wrong With This Picture????

Why isn't there action from Verizon? Probably because there are easier pickings elsewhere. They recently signed a franchise with neighboring Howard County. That at least shows that it's not a problem with the state of Maryland. (The state is significant because they traditionally controlled access to rights-of-way for most of Verizon's lines - and Verizon continued to take advantage of that by laying their FIOS-fiber as "upgrades" so that local communities couldn't interfere.)

And Verizon appears to be on the verge of nailing down a franchise with Carroll County. (For the geographically impaired, Howard is northeast of MC and Carroll County is north of Howard. (MD county map)

This Makes No Sense

So Verizon has laid fiber through half of MC but signs a franchise in a county where they only have 10% laid? And Verizon is actively negotiating in counties where they haven't even begun to dig! Is this a bad dream? Or a calculated move on Verizon's part? Or just a teeny tiny mistake? (Kinda like that teeny tiny "slam dunk" thing.)

Hey, anything's possible. Maybe Verizon is asking for concessions (We're the new guy in town - we need help from the big bad Comcast who has everything locked up.) Seems fair. After all, Starpower got concessions. For instance, StarPower doesn't have to meet certain customer service requirements as long as the number of customers falls below a certain number. Or maybe it's the reverse and the County Executive, having learned his lesson from being walked all over by Comcast, is trying to extract more from Verizon with an even tougher franchise.

I really don't understand the problem. These franchises should be cut and dry things by now. Everyone's signing franchises but MC. (Across the Potomac, Verizon is also getting franchises. For instance, Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax have both signed franchises.) Are we really asking for something so different?

Or is Verizon simply pissed off at all the complaints they've received from the digging in MC. (Admittedly, severing the electricity to the entire neighborhood of one of the councilmembers was not a politically savvy move.) But hey, I think competition is too important. I'm not complaining about a few "minor" annoyances. (They left a cable across two of my neighbors' lawns for 3 months and I didn't call once!) And maybe Verizon is trying to keep Duncan out of Annapolis and has decided this embarrassment is a good way to do it. I don't really know. The Executive doesn't talk to me.

In fact, that's literally true. The Executive has Customer Service Standards which say that the county must respond to e-mail within 2 days. However, I've never received responses to my e-mails to him. Yesterday, I sent him another - requesting an explanation of the holdup over the franchise. His standards also say: In general, all written communication must contain complete, accurate and precise information. Wow. His response oughta clear things right up. Assuming I get one. Anyone willing to lay odds?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Upcoming Cable Communications Advisory Committee Meeting

There will be a meeting of the Montgomery County CCAC (Cable Communications Advisory Committee) tomorrow evening - Wednesday, January 18, starting at 7pm. If you are interested in attending, please call the Cable Office first as space is limited - especially this month as it is being held at the studios of Montgomery Community Television (see below). The meeting will include a tour of the studios.

Also on the agenda:
  • customer brochure (which the county lawyers have been studying for months, sigh)
  • video choice legislation (the latest source of income for lobbyists)
  • email service disclosure handout (more on this in an upcoming blog)
  • budget recommendations (see below) and
  • Cable Office briefing (i.e., FIOS, Comcast, and other issues that the CO has been dealing with).
Let me know which of these you'd like to hear more about. (I'll cover them all eventually but I'll do requested topics first.)

Montgomery Community Television

In case you've never heard of Montgomery Community Television (MCT), it can be found on channels 19 and 21. Most of the MCT shows are not only about Montgomery County but are also written, performed and directed by county residents. MCT not only provides studios and equipment where county residents can create shows; MCT also provides classes to learn how to use the equipment and to produce professional-quality results.

MCT is truly a Montgomery County jewel that more residents need to be aware of. It operates on a shoestring budget with most of the manpower coming from volunteers. Limited funding comes from cable TV franchise fees. And in my humble opinion, this is a very appropriate use of such fees. Tune in. Sign up for a class. You'll be glad you did.

Please Call If Attending

Reminder: Please call the Cable Office if you would like to attend the meeting. The Cable Office number is 240-773-2288.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

More Free Stuff - Your Tax Dollars At Work

This blog is my opportunity to express myself about telecommunications in Montgomery County. However, every so often I just can't help myself - I have to talk about something else. This is just one such occasion. What's today's reason?


Buried in the back of the Gazette this week (I'll read anything when I'm not thinking) was a classified ad asking for clinical research volunteers to eat chocolate. (My first thought: Yes! My second thought: Your tax dollars at work.) The NIH National Center for Complementary And Alternative Medicine is studying the effects of chocolate on blood pressure and insulin levels in an effort to see if it can help people with hypertension and diabetes.

The only catch - you must have high blood pressure (My third thought: Shucks, I may not have HBP now but just wait until my internet service goes down again!) and it must be moderate - between 140/95 and 170/110 off medication. (You can't take your regular meds during the 6-week study.) And, of course, you have to be otherwise reasonably healthy, live near lovely Bethesda, etc.

So if you are 'lucky' enough to meet that profile, call 301 496-3244 and get your free chocolate! (Yes, the chocolate is provided.)

In case you are skeptical, I surfed over to the NIH website and found that this is a bona fide study and it really is looking for volunteers. However, the website itself doesn't solicit volunteers - you have to have seen the classified - or read this blog!

PS: It's dark chocolate. Mmmm. Now where'd I put that Ghirardelli bar?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Win an On Demand Movie

Since my Frappr map of blog readers is so new and looking so naked, I figured I'd offer an incentive for readers to add themselves: a coupon for a free On Demand movie from Comcast!

To enter the drawing, find the Frappr link in the right-hand column (look toward the bottom) of this blog, click on it, and add yourself! In one week, I will pick out the Nth person on the Frappr list where N is the number of billing complaints received last month by the MC Cable Office (modulo the number of people on the map). If this is too confusing, just assume I'm using a Ouija board.

If you've already added yourself, you're in the drawing already!

Note, the coupon is only good for Comcast of Montgomery County so you're welcome to add yourself to the Frappr but only subscribers to Comcast of Montgomery County can win the coupon.

And yes, a free movie is a rather miserly freebie but on the other hand I'll mail it to you (or hand deliver it if you live close enough), no charge.

PS: If you win, I will have to ask your mailing address - and it better be close to where you plant yourself on the map. In the interest of privacy, it doesn't have to be exact and you don't even have to give your real name - but I don't want people adding themselves multiple times in an attempt to artificially increase their odds of winning. If there are multiple people very close together, I will treat them as one person in the initial selection. Then I will chose from among that group using the same algorithm as before except based on the number of internet complaints in the last month.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Cable Compliance Commission Wants You

Montgomery County, Maryland is looking for volunteers to serve on its Cable Compliance Commission. The Commission is different from the cable advisory committee (CCAC) that I frequently mention in this blog. The Commission adjudicates complaints from citizens regarding cable services. The Commission has the power to issue fines of up to $1000.

If you're interested in applying, send a resume and cover letter (no later than January 27, 2006) to:
Executive Doug Duncan
101 Monroe St
Rockville MD 20850
Appointments are for 3 years and include no compensation other than the satisfaction of resolving consumer complaints.

If you merely want to bring a case before the commission, you must first file an official complaint with the county's cable office. (Use the complaint link toward the bottom of the right column of this blog. That's a reminder that the complaint link will always be in that location.) If the county is unable to resolve the complaint within 30 days, you can request an appearance before the commission.

PS: Try out my new Frappr map, too. Inspire me to keep blogging by letting me know you're out there!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Automatic Billing - Convenience That Will Cost You

Recently the Washington Post reported on some customer support issues at Verizon. It seems people were getting overbilled (Are you surprised yet?) and a customer living in Olney, MD called to complain. The Verizon representative said, yes, they knew some customers were being double billed.
"When I asked if they were taking any steps to remedy this by notifying their customers . . . or refunding money, they simply said 'no,' that most people call when they notice that they're being overcharged."
According to the article, a Director of Verizon later clarified that the representative had misspoke and that affected customers' bills were being credited. However, my experiences don't jive with that. I have had dozens of incorrect bills from the likes of Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Sprint, etc. and never ever had them come back to me with a correction without my prompting - unless forced by a government order.

Surely, I shouldn't have to go on. But some people still tell me they rarely look at their bills (Who has the time?!) and they love automatic billing (It's so much simpler!) All I can say is: Bend over. Verizon is not looking out for your interest. (Comcast, nope, not them either.) Nor is the FCC. And state regulators and county regulators can't do it on their own. You need to watch out for these companies and take action yourself.

Two Recommendations
  1. Read Your Bill
  2. Do Not Use Automatic Billing
Letting companies such as Verizon, Comcast, and other telecomm companies automatically write checks on your account is convenient and stupid. Not only do they sometimes bill incorrectly but they can end up charging you for things you don't need. I've been charged for extra months of service, for phone calls I didn't make, for extra cable packages, for cable modems that I didn't rent, and for taxes and surchanges that didn't exist.

And during one particularly amazing period of time, I was informed that my account had been turned over to collections for three months of nonpayment - even though I had always paid my bills on time. And bank records showed every one of my checks having been promptly cashed the entire time I was getting dunned for nonpayment. This collections incident was courtesy of Comcast and took place during the period when I was serving on the county's cable advisory committee. If that's the treatment a knowledgeable customer gets, can you imagine the treatment the unknowledgeable customer gets?

No? Well start reading your bills and find out.