Monday, January 29, 2007

Rubberstamp This

This past Wednesday (Jan 24, 2007), I attended a meeting of the Cable and Communications Advisory Committee (CCAC) for Montgomery County, Maryland. This is a meeting of citizens who volunteer to meet once a month to discuss cable-related issues and advise the County Executive.

As I've said before, it's difficult to tell whether the committee has an impact any more. As long as I've been writing this blog, I've encountered nothing to justify its existence. Despite this, 14 people felt motivated enough to answer the call to fill four open seats on the committee. Their term starts in November of ... 2006. A Cable Office official speculated the seats might be filled by April - in other words, 6 months late.

Note that some citizens apply for many committees simultaneously even though they may only serve on one committee at a time. I guess people figure that it's nice to be on a committee, any committee. So it's unclear which if any applicants are really interested in cable issues and which are merely tired of bitching that Verizon isn't on their street yet. The committee complained about this too and asked the Cable Office if the Executive had standards that could be imposed to winnow down the list of applicants. The Cable Office said no. Ergo, 14 full interviews coming up.

You can tell that applicants don't have a clue when they've never even bothered to attend a meeting before applying. One applicant joined me in attending the meeting (hi Art!) and said he found it worthwhile. I do agree that it's worthwhile to attend as a guest - I learn a fair amount from the briefings given monthly by officials such as the MC Cable Administrator. However, it shouldn't require a committee to receive these briefings. News should be promptly made public via the web.

This very idea - making news available promptly - was made, albeit indirectly, several times during the meeting. For instance, the committee asked if the Cable Office could issue press releases when issuing fines against franchisees. Donna Keating, acting Cable Administrator, said that the Cable Office doesn't issue press releases. Actually, the Cable Office does make a fair amount of information available online - although I'd like to see more. But lacking is any kind of notification mechanism to let citizens know when information has been made available. I've been asking the Cable Office for this for 6 years. Even a simple email list would be better than what we have now (i.e., nothing).

This is all rather sad for a committee with Communications in its name. As far as I know, the committee itself doesn't even have a mail list. Nor are there public archives of the meetings in either video or written form. I went so far as to create a mail list six years ago as a yahoo group, started posting the committee minutes and other documents to it, and the committee used it for a year until the Cable Office decided that they wanted direct control. That was the end of it. The Cable Office assured me that the county's IT department would provide an official mail list and webspace. Over the years, the committee occasionally queried Alisoun Moore, MC CIO, on the status of that request. No response was ever heard. The latest news is that Alisoun has stepped down and the county is in search of a new CIO. Anyone interested? Perhaps someone who knows about mail lists? RSS? Web pages? Videos? Communication? It's not that hard, is it?


Perhaps the only activity with the potential for real work that regularly faces the committee is the opportunity to weigh in on the cable budget. The cable budget is roughly $15 million. This supports the PEG channels, the Cable Office, the inspectors, the lawyers and the county network ("I-Net" or "institutional network"). The majority of the money for this comes from the franchise fees paid by cable TV customers.

Amy Wilson of the Cable Office gave the briefing on the budget. Briefing is an apt word because it was all too brief. She provided no new numbers but rather the old estimates from last year and asked for comments before they were sent back to Executive Leggett and on to the Council. But her deadline was February 5, meaning 7 business days. The committee has never been able to turn things around so quickly - so after making a show of staring at the spreadsheets for a minute and plaintively asking for guidance from the Cable Office (which refused), the committee agreed to rubberstamp the existing numbers without debate and provide a letter supporting the old figures in the budget - figures which presumably won't be the ones issued by the Executive. (The budget subcommittee nominally left the door open for last minute observations in the remaining few days but I don't see that happening.) Bottom line: Nominal budgetary support without justification. Or in more familiar terms: Taxation without (meaningful) representation.

Amy pointed out that the Executive asked the Cable Office for two budgets: one capable of sustaining existing operations and a version with a 5% cut. The Cable Office didn't share where the 5% might come from nor did the committee ask.

Personnel Changes

Besides a new CIO, there are a few other changes in personnel worth mentioning: Jane Lawton, MC Cable Administrator is off to Annapolis again as a Delegate for District 18. She is expected back mid-April. In her stead as Acting Cable Administrator is Donna Keating who normally takes care of the G (Government) of the PEG channels.

Suzanne Weiss is the new chair of the CCAC. Suzanne appears to be continuing the same procedures created by outgoing chair Shep Bostin. The most unfortunate of these is to restrict public questions until the end of the meeting - when context has been lost, when visiting officials have left, and committee members are half out the door as well. Suzanne officially ended the committee's secretarial position. I suppose it was a formality but one that bears mentioning because the Cable Office is in charge of recording the committee minutes, a practice which I think inappropriate given that the committee sometimes has very different opinions than those of the Cable Office about what is important and what is not.

Comcast has a new VP of government affairs. I don't know the name but this person will be responsible for both Montgomery and Frederick. Is the Frederick cable system (which includes the old Adelphia franchise) in good shape? What's the regulatory environment there - does anyone know?

The new Comcast VP asked to attend the next CCAC meeting. Years ago, it used to be common for Comcast and RCN VPs to attend CCAC meetings and give status reports and take questions. I can only assume that the representatives realized that it didn't matter whether or not they came - reporters didn't come, the committee had no power, and the meetings frequently became ugly venting sessions by the members - so why bother? Anyone want to participate in a pool for the number of meetings the new Comcast VP attends before deciding Wednesday evenings are better spent elsewhere? (PS: RCN reps haven't shown up for a long time. And Verizon reps have yet to show up.)

Finally, Sonya Healey has moved on from her position as the council staffmember responsible for cable matters. I'm sorry to see Sonya leave as she did an excellent job. She prepared the council briefing packets - very thorough and well written. She was happy to talk or email whenever citizens wanted and provide whatever they requested. And she regularly emailed briefing packets and agenda in advance, providing alerts for items of significance that were upcoming. She was the ideal of a county employee. I understand Sonya's new position is chief of staff for Councilmember Ervin. Ervin in turn worked in a similar position herself prior to winning election to the Council so perhaps Sonya is following in her footsteps. Sounds good to me!

Rate Increases

All of the franchisees (Verizon, Comcast, and RCN) have recently announced price hikes in their TV rates. This seemed to surprise committee members: Wasn't competition supposed to hold down rates? However their analysis was superficial. There are all sorts of significant factors that belie the rates themselves. The fact is that despite rate increases that exceed CPI increases and a lack of a la carte channels, there are still good choices out there for the consumer willing to hunt them down. For instance, Verizon's new rates are still significantly below Comcast's. Verizon offers a broader selection of channels and HD programming as well. Satellite is also very competitive. And one poster to the dslreports forum claims that Comcast is offering HBO free for the year. (Send me email or post a note here, if you are also able to get free HBO merely by asking.)

Comcast appears to be resting on its laurels, rotted as they are, and enjoying the slow speed of Verizon's deployment as well as the resistance of consumers to try satellite, and the confusion of the marketplace, particularly with respect to higher tiers such as HD (where providers make a huge profit). A good article about the complexities of the local marketplace appeared in this week's Washington Post in which Howard Bryant and Rob Pegoraro described the difficulties and disappointments of the choices. I mentioned recently how the (ostensibly) technically superior service of Verizon could still be unacceptable - giving my own case as an example.

Apart from complaints about the inability to get Verizon TV (only available to 75000 homes in MC so far), the committee spent more of its time grousing about Comcast. Complaints included poor analog picture quality, poor audio quality, poor HD quality, and so on. Cable Office staffer Marjorie Williams described how disappointed she was in her own Comcast service, specifically pointing out that on some channels, she could detect little difference between digital and analog quality. Verizon TV, on the other hand, seems to be delivering on quality. Everyone to whom I've spoken is quite happy with what they're seeing. Margie went on to say that the early complaints received by the office about Verizon were entirely about billing. No service complaints and no installation complaints. (If you're reading this and have complaints that aren't being resolved by Verizon, please file them with the county.) Complaints are understandable with a brand new service. We won't know the true extent of them until the council's MFP review at the end of Q1. (Note: The Q4 review will be Feb 5, 2007.)

Meanwhile, Comcast is being fined again by the county for violations of the customer service provisions of the franchise related to telephone answering time in the 4th quarter of 2006. The new fine is roughly $12K. As one member observed, this is well below the cost of hiring another person to answer phones so it's not surprising that Comcast would gladly pay the fine rather than avoid it by increasing staff.

Consumer Rights Brochure

I missed the last two committee meetings and so was surprised to see the committee continuing to flagellate itself over the cable consumer rights brochure. To recap, this is a one-page brochure that I drafted years ago and made the mistake of believing the committee could agree to publish with minimal additional work. Since then, the brochure proceeds to come up at each meeting: yet a new draft is shown, members recommend changes, ask what the hell it is or what it means, some condemn it as incomprehensible, and discuss yet again how it should be distributed. And the committee has also been jerked around by the county lawyers who evidentally feel there is something illegal or immoral about the whole thing. This month the committee reported being rebuffed by a representative of the Office of Consumer Protection which publishes a lot of similar brochures and, when asked, declined to help instead suggesting that the committee take responsibility itself.

CCAC Vice-Chair Joy Ragsdale observed that one Don Libes had made a version of the brochure complete with county logo available on a website which would lead to confusion between it and the official one. I doubt that - not only is much of the text different but so is the title! In any case, it's surely a moot point. The latest move by the committee was to turn the whole thing over to the Cable Office - which surely means a final death - because the Cable Office always wanted to kill the brochure. There is no one in the Cable Office who has a burning desired to invest any effort in the brochure.

The committee didn't ask for my opinion on any of these issues - even though I was sitting right there as they continued to throw my name around. Note: Since 2006, members of the public have not been allowed to speak unless specifically called on by the committee. If they had, I would've suggested they drop the whole thing and return to the useful parts of the meeting - the briefings by the Cable Office and other visiting officials.


Richard Turner, Executive Director of Montgomery Community Television, gave a status report about the PEG channels. Alas, he did not provide an update on MCT so my understanding of what's going on there is limited to what appeared in the draft minutes of the previous committee minutes. To wit:
Jane met with Richard Turner and Theresa Cameron regarding the MCT volunteers. The situation is still very delicate since MCT Volunteers who have been with MCT for years are attempting a take over by regaining board seats with the intention of remoing the current executive director. An arbitrator is now in place to assist with resolving the issues.
I have no idea what that really means but at the request of committee member Yen-Ju Chen, herself an ex-PEG official, the "delicate" sentence was stripped from the official minutes.

If there is further interest in the PEGs, I'd like to cover what they're doing (and why they need so much money!) to do it. Let me know if you'd like to read more about the PEGs. And tell me which PEG shows you watch. Thanks!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

And We Are Here To Help

Montgomery County's MFP committee will be holding a quarterly hearing on the county's cable franchisees. This will be the first meeting with Verizon as an official franchisee. Are we still in the honeymoon? We'll find out. February 5 at 9am on the 7th floor of the Council Office building.

My guess is that the honeymoon is still on (and the council has its hands full of other problems) but I've heard a lot of complaints from people waiting to get fiber and not understanding that, well, it takes time. And Verizon, despite wanting to roll out service as quickly as possible, has plenty of time built into the franchise. Please calm down folks!

I've got my own problems. I've become dismayed to find - as I had feared all along - that I cannot get any kind of device with which I can readily schedule recordings of FIOS TV on my computer. I really don't want to get a separate DVR and display. Might I end up with FIOS for internet and Comcast for TV? Egad. And please don't tell me the quality of FIOS TV is so much better. Or that it costs more this way. I accept this. Or do I. This is so frustrating.

Volunteers Wanted

The County is looking for citizen volunteers to serve on the Telecommunications Advisory Committee (TAC). This committee advises the County Executive and County Council. Well that was always the theory anyway. Very little advising has taken place in the years that I've been observing the committee. For example, the TAC was not invited to any of the Verizon negotations or strategy sessions held by the Executive.

Just about everyone involved shares some of the blame for lack of communication. (Well, the council wasn't invited either so I can't blame them too much.) I've explained the problems several times before so I won't repeat them again. (Browse the archives.) Hopefully, new members will be more informed and willing to work. And perhaps the new Executive will be more interested in the committee's opinions.

There are five openings on the committee. Four members are eligible to apply for a second term. But I would assume that most of them won't.

If you have any questions about the committee, please post them here and I'll answer them. And attend the meetings to see what goes on. Hmm, looks like the Cable Office hasn't been updating their online calendar. Sigh. Assuming they stick to the usual schedule (3rd Wednesday of each month), the next TAC meeting should be January 17, 2007. However, I see the official solicitation for new members says that meetings are on the "forth (sic) Wednesday evening of each month." A new strategy to keep attendance down?

Incidentally, if you'd like to serve on another committee, here's the full list of openings. Hmm, I just tried clicking on it and got Windows NT Error number 2 occurred. (And I know it's not my computer since I'm not using Windows!) Maybe you'll have better luck.