Sunday, October 29, 2006

Public Hearing

MFP Committee

On Monday, October 30, the MFP committee will meet at 10:30am for a quarterly review of its franchisees - and soon-to-be-franchisee Verizon.

The MFP briefing packet contains reports by Sonya Healy (MC Council staffer), Jane Lawton (MC Cable Administrator), and CTC (testing and inspection contractor) which describes the good and bad for the last quarter - otherwise known as business as usual. For instance, Comcast was hit with a fine in the 2nd quarter and for the 3rd quarter has not submitted sufficient data to even know if it is in compliance. But partial figures show some decreases in customer service performance.

Complaints to the Cable Office are up 31% from 2nd quarter with 76% for service. (Complaints for RCN are down 40% for the same period.) CTC reported 2450 violations, up 11% from the 2nd quarter and 53% from a year ago. While many have now been corrected, CTC reports 1830 violations outstanding.

Picture freezing is mentioned as a notable problem which the county is receiving complaints about. Hasn't this problem been going on ever since Comcast rolled out its digital service? Another problem mentioned is the issue of standard installations. This was supposed to have been settled but evidentally customers are still being overcharged.

Comcast is also well behind on its obligation to provide cable service to public facilities. Jane's report shows 33 outstanding requests.

The committee also expects to deal with Verizon - at the very least to answer questions related to the franchise agreement. In the October 31 briefing packet, Sonya presents twelve issues that she wants addressed. More on this below.

Public Hearing

And the following day, Tuesday, October 31, the county council will hold a hearing for the public to provide input on the Verizon franchise agreement that the County Executive has proposed.

Sonya's report in the packet provides a comparison between the proposed and existing franchises. (When she says other agreements, she is referring to the existing franchises.) I cannot provide a link to the packet on the council website because it currently returns a Visual Basic error, sigh. But that's just as well - because the packet isn't searchable, grr. So I have made a searchable version of the packet you can download from my own website. (Oddly, it's also much smaller than the original - can anyone explain that?)

The number of differences are extensive and I won't go through them all but here are a few examples:
  • There are a number of differences over cable service availability. For example, Verizon appears to have been given some loopholes by which they can refuse to provide service if there are "technical reasons" that make it too difficult or unreasonable.

  • Much of Verizon's build-out is not subject to the provisions required of other franchisees because their infrastructure provides traditional phone service, making it subject to different provisions. More specifically, the franchise says that Verizon must comply with the provisions but there are no specific response times or penalties specified.

  • Verizon may have to provide significantly more network capacity for PEG channels if other franchises convert PEG channels to digital. Verizon will also pay a percentage of gross revenues instead of a fixed fee. Whose favor this works out to depends entirely on Verizon's success.
The remaining differences, and there are many more, can be found in the first ten pages of the packet. The packet also requests additional information from Verizon. Until these and several other issues are addressed, it is impossible to say whether the franchise is equitable both to Verizon and the existing franchisees. It is apparent that amendments must be made to the franchise in order for these issues to be addressed.

A CTC report is also provided in the packet. It raises additional issues. For example, it says "The County should verify that the set-top converters selected by Verizon work with widely-available DVRs and other consumer components, ..."

The packet also includes report from the Cable Office. I wish I could agree with everything in the report but it artfully dodges some issues. For example, page 35 has the following paragraph:
Another benefit we expect from Verizon MU'S entry into the cable market is improved service quality. Since providers must vie for a limited number of consumers in certain areas of the County, there is a strong incentive to be responsive to subscriber needs, and to provide reliable, high-quality services. In the past, cable subscribers in the County have complained about poor picture quality and other problems. With the advent of competition, it is likely that traditional deficiencies will be avoided or quickly corrected, since consumers can easily change service providers.
However, it is my understanding that Verizon is offering only yearly contracts making it not so easy to change service providers if consumers are unhappy with the service they receive from Verizon.

The Cable Office report also omitted the public testimony provided by citizens at the Executive Hearing last month, instead choosing to summarize it. Needless to say, their summary was terse and omitted, for example, any of the issues that I raised. The report also referred to written comments from Comcast. These were also omitted from the report as were portions of the original filing as I described earlier.

Your Turn

Due to conflicts in my own schedule, I will not be able to testify in person; however I plan to submit a written statement. If you would like to testify in person, the council has a page that explains how to sign up and gives some advice on how to how to testify effectively.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I trust everyone enjoyed the presentations at the Public Hearing on the Verizon Cable Franchise Application. It's too late to submit comments for the record; However, there will be another opportunity - this time for the County Council which must approve the application.

But I'm skipping over something important. The Executive is supposed to digest the public testimony and based on it, make a recommendation to the council. Anyone want to guess what that recommendation will be?

Presuming the obvious, the council has already set a date for its hearing: October 31, 2006. Costumes anyone? (The politicos would pay a lot more attention to your testimony if you showed up with a spool of cable over your shoulder and a Freddy Kreuger mask on your face.) The time of the hearing is 1:30pm which makes it rather inconvenient for most citizens. Hmm. Is it better to hold these hearings during the day (when citizens won't attend them) or during the evening (when politicians won't attend them)?

But the public will be listening. I've heard from a large number of people who have watched the video archive of the hearing.

Speaking of which, can we improve the quality of the video? The audio is fine but the picture is so poor that the faces lack detail and the smaller subtitles are completely unreadable. Given that the viewership is entirely local, the county should be able to pump out higher-bandwidth video without incurring excessive charges or latency. It doesn't make sense that we can get high-quality video free from Google on the other side of the US but we can't get decent video from down the street in Rockville when the county network is hooked directly to Comcast and RCN fiber (and presumably soon Verizon as well). As I mentioned in my presentation, the franchise should ensure that the government has plenty of bandwidth for video-on-demand (VOD). And once the franchise does, then we need to actually use the bandwidth more effectively too. VOD is the future and, for some already, the present. Did anyone watch Channel 6 live? Or was it all via the archive?

I used to be able to watch the Channel 6 archives in a choice of video formats as well as on both Windows and Mac. It appears we have taken a giant step backward. Now the archives are only available in Windows Media (which truly stinks for trying to make transcripts due to the lack of precise control and significant lag). And the archives are only accessible on Windows and only using Internet Explorer.

Bottom line: Not only is the county making it more difficult for people to testify, but the county is making it more difficult to hear others testify as well. Something is seriously wrong here.