Monday, February 27, 2006

Rights Gone Wrong

When I was a member of the county's communications advisory committee (CCAC) two years ago, I drafted a paper titled: Basic Rights for Cable Users in Montgomery County. I was convinced most consumers didn't know what they were entitled to or how to deal with their cable provider. For instance, I was pretty sure that few people understood the multi-stage process in the county for handling cable complaints. (To this day, few residents even know the county has a cable office.)

Shep Bostin (now CCAC chair) made the good suggestion of squeezing the paper down to a single page, folding it up, and distributing it as a brochure. You've seen similar brochures on consumers rights - for health club memberships, home repairs, apartment rentals, and so on. To us, a brochure on cable rights seemed like a pretty reasonable addition to the bunch. We discussed distributing it in libraries and so on. Shep, who works for Geeks on Call, wanted to give them to his own customers. He said that few of his customers know any of this stuff and they would appreciate the information. Shep also came up with the idea of leaving a space for a sponsor on the brochure. For example, he could make copies that said "Distributed courtesy of Geeks On Call" and his company would pick up the cost for making those copies. It would encourage distribution while saving the county's dime. A win-win idea. Everyone on the committee agreed.

Based on our discussion, I created the brochure and tried to jam enough in that it would give people the flavor of what their rights were while not being so mind-numbing as to turn people off. This was around the beginning of 2004. I distributed the draft brochure for several months of CCAC meetings and the committee recommended minor changes - making it even simpler and easier to understand. Cable Administrator Jane Lawton also requested some changes including removal of a few things that seemed to her to be a bit too aggressive. For instance, I had made a recommendation that people avoid using automatic billing. She insisted it be removed. Even though I didn't like doing it, I took it out to keep things moving. (When everyone has compromised, it's probably about right.)

Sometime around April '04, the committee voted to send it to the county attorneys for final review. So where has the brochure gone in the last two years? It's bounced around various county offices. It's regularly appeared on the CCAC agenda - almost all of the members that originally approved it are gone, so new ones passing through have to keep being educated about it. And it again appeared on the agenda two weeks ago when a representative from the Cable Office gave yet another briefing on how the brochure remained mired in our county government. The latest status is that the county lawyers want the committee to drop it. According to the lawyers....
  • Informing the public is outside the charter of the advisory committee.
  • The county could be sued for statements in the brochure.
Yes, the county could be sued - after all, anyone can sue anyone - but it's hard to imagine the county losing. Clearly, the lawyers just don't see enough of an upside to take even the slightest risk. (Why stick our necks out for citizens? Our job is to protect the county government!) The CCAC spent yet another 40 minutes of its time during the last meeting discussing this and finally decided that the brochure is too valuable to simply drop and there has to be a way around the lawyers. Indeed, the committee has repeatedly heard encouragement - from the Cable Office, from Councilmember Marilyn Praisner (who is the council lead on all things cable-related). And at the annual meeting with the Council Executive, Bruce Roemer - the County's Chief Administrative Officer - enthusiastically said that informing the public in this manner was a great idea. (Reminder: County Executive Duncan was too busy to attend his own meeting, hence Roemer's presence on Duncan's behalf. However, Duncan wasn't entirely in the dark - he was briefed on it at his annual meeting a year earlier.)

The CCAC has had the brochure on its agenda for so long that it may as well be a permanent item. While I feel some pleasure that the committee still considers my earlier work valuable, I also feel that the time has come to drop it. It's not worth spending yet more time on a project that isn't going anywhere. While there are things worth butting county heads over, the committee could be spending its limited time much more productively. (Note: The CCAC only has a single 3-hour meeting each month.)

So why am I telling this painful tale? While the CCAC may not be able to publish the brochure, there's nothing stopping a public citizen from doing so. Hence, I am taking that step. The brochure is available here and a link to it will appear in the right-hand column of this blog for permanent reference. Download it. Make it available to others. And feel free to put your name or your company's name at the bottom of the first page. Corporate sponsorship is fine with me if it enables more people to be informed about their rights.

PS: I'm not making on money this. Don't call to tell me you're a sponsor - just put your name on the brochure and start copying!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Negotiations Going From None To Worse

Are my blogs too long? (Some people have said so.) Ok, here's a short one - a few notes from the county advisory (TAC) meeting this past Wednesday.

Negotiations Going From None To Worse

In my MFP meeting summary last week ("How To Communicate Nothing"), I remarked that Verizon VP Briana Gowing was (to put it politely) rambling. At Wednesday evening's TAC meeting, I found out that I wasn't the only one confused by her testimony. Both Cable Office representative Margie Williams and Council Analyst Sonya Healy claimed that Briana had attested to a schedule of meetings planned between the county and Verizon to negotiate the franchise.

You can read the statement in question here. My interpretation was different - that Briana was hoping to set up a series of meetings. But I can see how the phrase "scheduled meetings" might have been misinterpreted to mean meetings having been scheduled. I think it was just an unfortunate choice of words. That combined with her overly optimistic prediction of an agreement by the next MFP meeting surely didn't help.

Anyway, the county representatives were surprised to find the county lawyers denying that any such meeting schedule existed. So, as if communication was bad enough last week, it's even worse this week.

When the TAC pressed over who (the Executive?) or what (Verizon?) was holding things up, Sonya said that things were so far apart that Verizon hadn't even applied for a franchise yet. I found that confusing as they obviously have had some negotations. What is clear is that the Executive has not taken the next step ("filing") which starts a clock requiring certain actions to be taken in specified time periods. This is significant because it means that the Executive presently has no pressure at the current time to take action. He can ignore Verizon from now until the election (which might possibly be his plan).

Meanwhile, Margie observed that the Cable Office was getting lots of letters from citizens frustrated that the franchise wasn't happening. She said that the letters were being forwarded to the Council and the Executive.


Earlier, I mentioned that Comcast was found to have overcharged Montgomery County customers by $2.50. The Cable Office said the exact amount is actually $2.57. Oddly, you are only eligible if you are a customer as of March 6 of this year. So if you overpaid last year and then left Comcast, you'll miss your refund. Seems kind of strange, no? Ok, I agree that $2.57 is a small amount. But doesn't Comcast keep records of their ex-customers? No wonder they can't figure out why customers have left - out of sight, out of mind.

Internet Customer Service Regulations

At the MFP meeting, Sonya had described how Comcast finally supplied - just that previous evening - their customer service compliance stats for internet service! During the TAC meeting, Margie finally cleared up the mystery of exactly what convinced Comcast to change their mind after a year of procrastination. The county finally threatened to start fining Comcast at $200/day for each day the report was late. With 13 reports late, Comcast would've had to pay $2600 every day!

Rockville Not In Motion

Following up on the letter from a Rockville citizen that I posted previously, I asked Kernan Chaisson what's going on with Rockville. Kernan is the City of Rockville's TAC representative. This isn't the first time I've asked him about the Rockville Right-Of-Way issue and his answer was the same as before - that Rockville is determined to avoid the problems that the rest of the county has experienced with Verizon - and that Rockville lawyers continue to negotiate with Verizon.

JT (author of the letter) received a more detailed answer from Doug Breisch for the City of Rockville. As best I understand it, Verizon declined to sign any of the standard applications that Rockville provides for access to the right-of-way. Instead, Verizon is providing their own proposal - which Rockville is currently analyzing. Rockville did go so far as to say just sign the same franchise that Comcast already holds for a cable franchise and that will suffice. But Verizon was not interested in that offer - presumably for the same reasons that I've outlined earlier regarding the county's offer for a Comcast-like video franchise.

So Verizon doesn't appear to be making things easy for us but at least the Rockville officials are meeting with Verizon. (Remember, the county officials aren't.) Is there anything the County Council can do to break this logjam? Is it time to ask the FCC to threaten us with loss of local control?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Verizon's Fiber to the Rockville Premises

Will it take individual citizens to move the government to action? If so, let the following letter, quoted in its entirety, be the first of many to come.

I found it posted to a forum at dslreports. The letter was written by a Rockville resident and sent on Feb 13 '06 to Doug Breisch (City of Rockville DTS), County Executive Doug Duncan, the entire Montgomery County council, and the Verizon representative in charge of government affairs.

Subject: Verizon's Fiber to the Premise

To All Whom It May Concern:

In Rockville's April 2005 newsletter, the city indicated that they will not issue the permits necessary for Verizon to upgrade their facilities, because they feel an additional franchise is necessary. However in June, a New York State court ruled that Verizon does not need an additional franchise for this type of upgrade. I realize that Maryland is not bound by the New York decision, but the logic from that decision directly applies to the situation in Rockville. I suspect Verizon could win a lawsuit in Maryland if they chose to fight Rockville's decision, but I doubt they want to incur the legal expenses. As far as I know, no other jurisdiction in the county, the state, or the country, has taken the same stance as the City of Rockville regarding Verizon's upgrade.

Rockville's decision to deny permits affects many people in the county even those who do not reside within the city limits. For example, Randolph Hills is not in the city limits. The Verizon office on Montrose Road, which serves Randolph Hills, is not within the city limits. But since the Montrose Road office also serves areas within city limits, residents of Randolph Hills cannot be upgraded. I do not vote for the officials in the City of Rockville, yet their decision on this matter is preventing me from an upgrade that would reduce my costs several hundred dollars per month.

Nearly a year has passed since Rockville decided to deny permits for Verizon's upgrade, yet no progress has been made to reach an agreement. As far as I know, the county has not taken any steps to intervene.

At a Long Branch Town Hall meeting, I asked Councilmember George Leventhal about progress with television franchise negotiations. He wasn't aware of any. I wrote to my Councilmember, Howard Denis, asking if any progress has been made. He did not reply. I wrote to County Executive Doug Duncan asking who is in charge of negotiations. He did not reply. This issue is too important to be ignored!

This past November, the FCC announced that they are reconsidering the rules governing our communications policy, citing the unreasonableness of some local jurisdictions. Normally, I would be in favor of local control. However, the situation in Rockville provides a perfect argument in favor of removing local control.

The FCC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is here:

Rockville's April 2005 newsletter is here:

The State of New York's decision is here:

I sincerely hope that all of you will work together so that Verizon's fiber to the premise project can proceed as quickly as possible. If you don't, we can (and should) expect federal intervention, and/or state control.

J* T*
{address + phone}

Upcoming Advisory Committee Meeting

In this blog, I often refer to Montgomery County's "cable advisory committee" - the committee of citizens appointed by the Executive to provide advice to the Executive and the Council. For years the full name was actually Cable Communications Advisory Committee although that was a bit misleading because the CCAC advised on more than cable issues.

Last year, a government report recommended changing the name to reflect its broader scope. No one was particularly happy with this new name but no one on the CCAC or in the Cable Office realized that the Council approved the recommendations wholesale - until it was too late. Thus, CCAC became TAC (Telecommunications Advisory Committee) last month.

The TAC immediately set about trying to change the name back - or at least the acronym. Which is what will happen. The Council will approve a name change to "Cable and Communications Advisory Committee" - note the addition of the "and" which satisfies the desire for a name with a broader scope AND lets the committee continue using the old CCAC acronym.

Your tax dollars at work.

Upcoming Meeting

This Wednesday (Feb 15 '06), there will be a meeting of the CCAC/TAC/CCAC at 7pm. The meeting will be at 100 Maryland Av. 3rd floor (Council Conference Room), Rockville, MD, 20850. (In case you're not clear where Rockville is, look for the only place in the entire county without fiber to any homes.)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

How To Communicate Nothing

I Should Have Stayed In Bed

One qualification for being a council member must be an iron bladder. Those sessions are long. I got there an hour after the session began and I left a bit after noon - and the session still wasn't over! However, I did get there in time for the discussion of the cable plan and the Comcast/RCN/Verizon funfest.

The Plan

As I mentioned previously, the plan concerns the use of the franchise fees and the cable fund. The Plan's briefing packet is 22 pages long so I'm not even going to try to summarize it except to say that it's basically reasonable - in other words, I think the county government is spending the money pretty well. In some ways, the county is even a spendthrift.

That doesn't mean I agree with everything in the plan. For instance, I don't understand the obsession with running fiber to so many county facilities. Last year, I wondered why we laid fiber to an arts center which produces art, magnificent though it may be, that we are not allowed to redistribute. And fiber to the warehouse of the Dept of Liquor Control? (MC's FiberNet gang didn't even stay for the whole meeting - when called to testify, they were long gone.)

Also on this year's list is the initial repayment of funds that the Executive borrowed for general government operations. But that repayment is without interest. This causes a devaluation of the fund, with the county general fund reaping the difference. I have long considered this an inappropriate use of the cable fund - because it, in essence, launders monies from the cable fund. If we're going to commingle the two funds in this way, why bother having a separate cable fund in the first place?

Oh and we'll be doing it again - the FY06 plan lends $3.87 million for a traffic management project - again, to be repaid without interest. I guess we like to pay taxes. (And don't try to tell me the franchise fee is not a tax!)

PS: The county figured out a new way this year to get more money in the plan. Tower applications are now to be taxed. Is that reasonable? Who can tell? Left unaddressed was whether the fees were in line with the expense of the management of the process. (Council staff raised the question in the briefing packet, however none of the council sought the answer. Hmm.)

Also on the list: renovations and improvements to council facilities, such as the video equipment in the council meeting rooms. I'm sending in a request to have them improve the video quality of the government channel. There's a reason I attend in person!

And would it be so hard to provide wireless access in these rooms? What's a wireless router cost these days ... $35? Shucks, I'll give them my old one. The signal only has to cover the space of a conference room so even 5 year-old equipment ought to suffice.

The Unplan

The Unplan: From now on, that's how I should refer to the quarterly review of Comcast, RCN, and the ever-just-beyond-our-reach Verizon franchise. "The Unplan" is shorter. Evocative, too.

First things first. The Cable Office had some good words for Comcast. They're talking to each other again. And Comcast's complaint levels are down - way down - by 70%! Kudos all around. Ok, enough kudos. Now let's recall how high complaint levels were in the previous quarter. There were 1042 complaints to the Cable Office in the 3rd quarter. That was an all-time high. So it's hard to imagine that complaints could not go down! Indeed, the new numbers are not that low. 310 complaints in the final quarter. In addition, there was some question over whether Comcast was actually in compliance with the franchise. (Acting Cable Administrator Amy Wilson said yes, Council Analyst Sonya Healy said no.)

At the previous MFP hearing, Comcast blamed Verizon for the high complaint numbers - and although our inspectors have agreed to an extent, Comcast also got stung by their own willingness to ignore real facts - for instance, that 150 complaints were just about billing. (Comcast billing errors caused by Verizon? Not likely!) However, Verizon did report that they've changed some practices that might well have lowered the impact on Comcast - including using a "soft dig" process and the county agreed that there were fewer complaints about Verizon as well. Good news.

But in an absolute sense, there are still too many Comcast problems. The Montgomery County inspectors found 1629 construction violations in the 4th quarter, a 2% increase from the 3rd quarter and a whopping 28% increase from the same quarter the previous year. How to explain an increase in violations at the same time as a decrease in customer complaints? Angela Lee's (Regional Director of Government Affairs for Comcast) theory was the spectacularly vague "Some of the processes that we've put into place, we're starting to see the fruits of our labor." My theory is that Comcast has changed its procedures to make more use of quick temporary fixes where in the past they would've taken more time to do permanent fixes - the rationale being that a lot of violations are better than a lot of unhappy customers.

As long as such violations don't represent hazardous situations and citizens can put up with the annoyance of drops laying over driveways and down swales, I can live with that. Of course, I don't like paying a premium price for that level of service but competition may yet well address that.

It is ironic that Marilyn Praisner appeared to be pleased that the number of complaints were high enough to justify continuing to keep local control over the franchise (an issue currently being debated in Congress). But I'd prefer she use a different reason: that the state and the fed don't appear to show an interest in effective regulation.

Lastly, after months of stonewalling (and the county finally making a financial threat), Comcast provided the customer service statistics for their internet service. Sonya noted that Comcast provided figures at 5pm the day before so there was not time for analysis of the figures. I don't know why Comcast fought this for so long. The numbers don't represent any serious competitive exposure - which is what they've claimed for so long. RCN has never had a problem providing the numbers.

Update On The Verizon Franchise

Representing Verizon, Briana Gowing (Verizon VP for External Affairs) made her first appearance before the MFP committee. Briana provided an update on the status of the video franchise. It was, to be polite, lacking in detail.
At one point it looked like we are at a little bit of a standstill. But we are very optimistic that we can work with the county executive's office and get a series of scheduled meetings going and work together and I'd really like to come before you next time and have an agreement for you to look at.
Yep. That was it. How could the council accept this non-report? Beats me. But they did.

In conversation I had a week earlier with Briana, she described one of the bigger stumbling blocks - that Verizon didn't want to be subject to any internet regulation, alluding to the customer service requirements required in the Montgomery County Code for cable modem providers. Verizon is viewed as a "cable" provider for the purpose of providing video service. However, it might be possible for them to get a ruling that they are not a provider of cable modem service. Indeed, I am not aware of that term being defined anywhere in such a way that would cover Verizon's internet deployment. (Indeed, when the Executive put forth his cable modem regulations, I responded with a letter that the regulations were meaningless without a definition of such a service. The council passed it despite my warning.)

So I don't know how the Executive will work out this issue. And it is likely that Verizon also feels that it should receive other breaks given that they are starting from zero subscribers with an entrenched and savvy competitor. After all, RCN has been given breaks. And Verizon has been given breaks in other localities where franchises have been signed. We should certainly entertain similar breaks in order to spur meaningful competition. Should MC's internet regs be rolled back entirely? Public hearing anyone? (The Exec gave Comcast a public hearing prior to the issuance of their franchise. Will he ever give one to Verizon?)

Rockville - Can You Hear Me Now?

Even more curious than the franchise status "non-report" was a discussion of an outage affecting part of Rockville the previous week.

Linda Moran (Council Support Specialist in the Rockville City Manager's Office) gave a lengthy statement that at first left me with the impression that Verizon had badly dropped the ball. To paraphrase Linda: Verizon couldn't say exactly what the problem was, exactly who was affected, exactly when service would be restored, etc. It sounded pretty bad, giving the distinct impression that Verizon had serious problems.

But there were too many holes in her testimony; As I sat there listening, I was struck by how incomplete it was - how she rambled all over the place, omitting all sorts of basic facts and painting a very one-sided picture of things.

Briana then apologized profusely in a style that I found to be equally rambling. I sat there wondering if anyone from Verizon should have even apologized in the first place, except perhaps for sending an uninformed VP who seemingly hadn't even planned the apology until it came tumbling out.

So what was the problem that cut off service to 700 customers for days? I still don't know. No one seemed to have a clue. And no one connected the dots. For instance, Linda said that Verizon sent an email announcing the outage to a Rockville City employee who wasn't even there. Briana said that Verizon spoke to a Rockville City employee who left to tend to a sick child without telling anyone else the news of the outage.

That was just one example of dozens of points that could easily have been clarified. Indeed, Linda said that she made contact with Briana soon after she learned of the outage, described how helpful Briana had been, and yet here we were sitting, a week later, and the two of them still weren't able to coherently describe what had happened. I sat there shaking my head at the futility of such a discussion. Had I been sitting on the council, I would've asked both to leave and not to return until they had a prepared timeline that indicated all relevant dates/times and fully identified all people involved and what each one had done.

One point Briana made was a good one - that they need backup communication mechanisms and even backup-for-the-backup mechanisms. But it was hard to tell if she was referring to the Verizon repair crews or whether she was referring to the failure to get some responsible behavior from the Rockville City manager's office. In either case, I would like a more personal approach. If my landline is out, Verizon currently has no way of getting in contact with me short of sending someone to my front door. I don't expect that. I don't even want that. Instead, I would be happy to give Verizon my email address and cell phone number if it would help them contact me during outages.

The same goes for Comcast. I had a brief discussion with a Comcast VP afterward during which he described how Comcast would never have had such problems. But Comcast doesn't contact me either when there is an outage in my area.

Here's what we need, folks. We need for you to be able to ...
  • list outage reports on your web pages
  • send outage reports to our phones
  • send outage reports to our email
  • send outage reports to our pagers
... and if we do call up with an address, you should be able to tell us if there are any problems in the neighborhood before asking us to start powercycling our equipment.

Each of these reports should be done on an address-specific basis or as geographically specific as possible. And it should be reasonably configurable. For instance, some people don't want want to be phoned after 11pm. Others won't want to be phoned at all.

Montgomery County could get involved in this as well. MC's lets residents register their cell phones, pagers, and email addresses for emergency reports but fails to associate them with specific street addresses. So would MC's alert system be satisfactory in an outage similar to the one Verizon just experienced? Will MC add geographical functionality in the future? Is any of this stuff really that hard?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Upcoming MFP Meeting

The Montgomery County Council's MFP Committee reviews the performance of its franchisees Comcast and RCN (nee Starpower) every three months. It's that time again: February 9, 2006. The review is the 4th item on a slate that begins at 9am so 10am or even 11am might be a more accurate starting time. Reservations are not required although seating is limited. (I've stood through some of these.)

I plan on attending. You can catch it on channel 6 if you have cable TV. If you don't have cable, you can get it streamed live (or later via archive) from the County Cable Montgomery channel web page. Warning: the CCM stream/archive is low resolution; so much so that people's faces cannot even be recognized. (And although titles are superimposed beneath speakers, the titles are unreadable as well, sigh.) But the sound quality is ok so if you just want to let it run in the background and listen while you work on something else, it's sufficient.

Is Anything Expected?

I have no idea if anything will happen at this meeting - no preliminary notes have been released - no agenda has been released. Strange. Indeed, at the last meeting, MFP Chair Marilyn Praisner orally admonished Cable Administrator Jane Lawton for not providing her briefing in writing ahead of time. But the chair may be frustrated again as Jane is temporarily away serving as a delegate in Annapolis. (Talk about your feeble excuses!) The county cable administrator duties are temporarily being fulfilled by Amy Wilson. Good luck on Thursday Amy!

What about the council briefing packet? The Council staffers are usually very good about sending briefing packets early. So maybe there's something else holding things up, oh, say, last minute Verizon negotiations? Or perhaps Comcast is trying to convince the county not to issue fines for failure to provide data that the county needs to enforce the customer service regulations for their customer service - something they were warned about at the last MFP meeting.

As I mentioned earlier, no one seems to be talking about the Verizon franchise issues publicly. One cable office representative even suggested Verizon might not come to the committee meeting. Last year, Comcast even stopped sending representatives to the meetings for a time. And although the Comcast reps have returned (albeit with new faces), at just the last MFP meeting, Jane mentioned that she was not getting her phone calls returned from Comcast. This inability of the county and the various companies to communicate is quite disturbing, suggesting that progress is taking a back seat to personalities and legal/political games - with citizens the losers.

And if they are communicating, the public is certainly being kept in the dark. (I never did get an answer to my question to the Executive.) I was further reminded of this veil of darkness by other items on the same MFP slate. Specifically, three companies have applied for access to the rights-of-way to install communications equipment (e.g., fiber, antennas). Part of the franchise application requires that the public be given notice and an opportunity to raise concerns.

Specifically, section 49-11 of the County Code says:
The application for such franchise or right shall be published by the applicant once a week for three (3) successive weeks in one (1) or more newspapers published in the county and having general circulation ...
If any objection to the granting of the franchise is made by any person interested therein, either as a taxpayer or as one whose property rights are involved, and filed in writing with the county executive within ten (10) days after the last notice appears a hearing shall be held
In each case, notice was provided by a classified in the Washington Examiner. Now perhaps I'm not living on the right side of the tracks because I don't get the Examiner, I know of few people who do, and the Examiner web pages don't explain where it can be purchased. So who gets the Examiner? The Examiner appears to be given to a small select group of people. The Examiner says only that it reaches half of the top one-third income households and only in zip codes with the greatest number of households with adults 25-54 and household incomes over $75,000.

To me, a newspaper with only a 16% circulation and only in demographically-correct zip codes doesn't sound like it fits the description of a newspaper of general circulation and this is just one more example of the county allowing behavior that discourages any kind of informed populace. (And on a technical note, the Examiner isn't published in Montgomery County. So not only is the spirit of the law being violated but so is the literal text of it by several measures.)

Bottom line: I don't know if there are any issues with this three franchise applications - because I haven't even seen the applications before! Has anyone besides the County Executive? Will it surprise anyone to learn that the Executive received zero comments on any of these three franchise applications? That's the basis on which the Executive declared it unnecessary to have public hearings.

I recommend the county make franchise applications a wee bit more visible. Since they're already on file in the cable office, why not have them appear on the cable office website? Even better, why not have them sent to a mail list. The county government has gobs of mail lists for citizens - there is even one for trash and recycling announcements (which I actually find quite informative)! So why not a list for this or anything telecom related. The county council packets and the cable office reports should also be posted in this way. (Cable Office reports should also be available online.)

Cable Plan

Also on the MFP slate is item 3 "Cable Television and Communications Plan". The most interesting part of the plan is what the county is doing with the $8 million or so received annually from franchise fees - plus whatever is in the "cable fund" (leftover from previous years and grants from the franchisees). Before you start submitting ideas - keep in mind that cable franchise fees are required to be spent on cable-related projects (franchise administration, CCM, etc). Oh, and you can be assured that they pretty much have dibs on every last dollar already. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be scrutinized closely.

Last Minute News Flash

As I put the finishing touches on today's blog, I just received word (thanks JT!) that the council briefing notes for the MFP session were just made available. I haven't read them yet but in this link, JT makes the following preliminary observations:
Comcast still hasn't submitted the summer FCC proofs, they didn't do so well on the FCC monitor tests, and they still haven't figured out how to properly ground a drop, but they've made some significant improvements. For example, the average time to correct a problem serious enough to be classified as an "alert" has dropped to 22 days. Of course, the franchise agreement requires "alerts" to be corrected within 7 days, but an average of 22 days (or even 50 days, like Q3) isn't bad enough to get fined or anything.

Regarding Comcast's refusal to comply with our cable modem customer service standards for the entire year, the county issued a "notice of violation" and threatened "liquidated damages".
More info to come soon. See you at the MFP meeting!

Monday, February 06, 2006

An All-Verizon Family

Like me, you've undoubtedly heard plenty of anecdotes about lousy service. But such complaints rarely go anywhere. That's why it's nice to see one make the Washington Post.

In this case, the story was written by none other than Steven Pearlstein. For those who don't read the Post, Mr. Pearlstein writes a regular column in the Business section - usually on financial matters. Not so this week. In his column this past Friday ("Service Call"), he described how his family thought it would be a fine idea to sign up for a complete Verizon package: local phone, long distance, wireless, DSL, and TV (not FIOS TV (sorry) but rather DirecTV).

This led to over a month of frustration at the hands of Verizon sales reps, service reps, and installers, which he details in his column. His key messages are:
  • Verizon (like most companies) is organized to care about itself - it's procedures, it's organization and so on, instead of caring about things from the customer's point of view.
  • Verizon is investing huge amounts in expensive technology (of which fiber is just one aspect) only to see possible benefits frittered away by, ahem, dumb-ass policies and people who place those policies first - ahead of doing "the right thing".
In his article, Steven mentions some of those policies. I'll mention another - one which I've never seen publicized: Since Verizon uses subcontractors that don't appear to dependably follow Verizon's own policies, Verizon has seen fit to hire its own inspectors to follow the crews around. Sounds good, no? It lets Verizon save money by not having to directly hire and train temporary crews while still leaving Verizon with the final word on how work gets done, right?

However, the Verizon inspectors aren't allowed to talk to their subcontractors. The inspectors have to file reports with their supervisors who can (after waiting for the next meeting) go back to the contractors who then talk to the subcontractors who talk to the site supervisors who talk to the actual workers. As if that's not enough, the inspectors don't even work the same hours as the subs. For example, if crew supervisors are ordered to finish jobs with overtime, they can order their crews to keep working but they have no authority over the inspectors who don't have that same flexibility and have to leave when their shift is over.


To Steven's key points, I would add another - directly counter to his initial premise. His initial premise was that the goal of bundled service - as many services as possible coming from one provider and on one bill - is a good idea. I disagree. Bundling makes people much more reluctant to walk away from shoddy service since the services can affect one another.

Example: If your provider suddenly jacks up your wireless rates, can you afford the penalty of breaking your package agreement? More likely, will you even notice? And even if you notice, will you understand it? Most people can't even figure out their wireless bills now - how difficult will it be when combined with 4 other bewilderingly impenetrable charges?

The result? Bundling encourages customers to accept increasingly shoddy service. Sure bundling is convenient. But then so is giving control of your bank account to your provider. And you already know how I feel about that.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Don't Spend It All In One Place

Montgomery County customers of Comcast will be receiving a $2.50 refund thanks to the efforts of the county's cable office. I know it doesn't sound like a lot but if you multiply $2.50 times the number of Comcast subscribers (roughly 200,000 in MC) that's half a million dollars that Comcast has to give up. And unlike the lawyers in a typical class action lawsuit, the Cable Office doesn't get to keep any of it. Anyway, it's $2.50 each of us overpaid. It's our money. (And if you still think $2.50 is chump change, send it to me - I'll find a use for it.)

So How Did We Overpay By $2.50 Anyway?

As a cable operator, some of Comcast's rates are regulated (basic cable for instance). Included in those regulated rates are rentals (such as remotes) and installation fees. To make a long story short, those rates must be "reasonable" as calculated based on their true costs. Cable operators are not allowed to charge in excessive of those rates. That's the good news. The bad news is that the cable operator can charge first and the local franchise authority can only protest after the fact. (If you think automatic billing is bad, this is even worse.) And that's exactly what happened here. Comcast raised the rates. The county protested. And roughly a year later, the county eventually won the case.

Comcast has already set new rates for this year - these may or may not be appealed as well. What is more interesting though is that past rates have been specific to the local franchise area. The new rate filings (known by the FCC Form name of "1205") are national. To me, it doesn't make sense to have a national rate but I'm not complaining. Intuitively, installation ought to cost more in areas like ours where labor is more expensive. So we should be getting a break. Sort of anyway - because a nationwide system ought to simplify Comcast's own accounting, billing, customer service, and legal practices, so maybe they'll save enough money to make it up.

The county is not as shortsighted as me and sees the opposite view. Moving to a national rate means that we have less control over the local franchise. That will make it more difficult for the county to question and fight Comcast over rates that appear to be excessive. It is worth looking at the fight over Comcast's privacy policy. By rights in our franchise, we are entitled to a certain degree of oversight of the privacy policy. However, ever since Comcast moved to a national policy, it's been effectively impossible to get them to change their policy, despite the gaping holes in it that never would have been permitted in the past. Comcast's attitude is: But we can't change it for Montgomery County, it's a nationwide policy!

As Comcast moves to nationalize additional practices, we can expect more of this with a consequent loss of control not only from the county cable office but from Comcast's local headquarters as well.