Friday, July 27, 2007

Preserve Your Rights

Montgomery County officials are warning Comcast customers to study their July bill closely. The July bill contains a notification of an upcoming change to the terms-of-service agreement with an opportunity to refuse within 30 days of receipt of the bill.

In short, Comcast wants you to give up a number of rights you currently have and instead agree to, well, something less.

Specifically, Comcast is changing your terms of service so that you agree to resolve disputes with Comcast through arbitration. In return, you relinquish your "right to pursue any legal remedies against Comcast in court, including claims for negligence, fraud or intentional wrongdoing." Nor can you join in a class-action lawsuit. Plus you accept limits on times in which you may file claims. However, Comcast reserves the right to seek similar remedies in return.

That's fair, right?

Obviously, this is heavily tilted in Comcast's favor. So why would you agree? Because it's in the fine print that no one reads and is structured as an "opt-out" meaning that you agree if you do nothing - which is what most people will do when trying to plow through a stack of bills, each filled with the usual advertising and other extras that are discarded within seconds of slitting open the envelope.

If Comcast really wanted you to know about the change, they would advertise it in the same way that they market all their promotions - using numerous commercials, flyers, and emails.

But their current approach combined with the opt-out technique is unethical. And it appears to violate the franchise agreement as well.

According to the franchise...
Copies of all notices, promotional or special offers sent to Subscribers and any agreements used with Subscribers shall be filed promptly with the County. All forms and notices distributed to customers which describe customer service policies and procedures shall be subject to County approval.

According to the Cable Office, this prior approval was not sought. The county has not stated if it will seek penalties or for Comcast to cancel the change for Montgomery County customers who fail to respond.

I recommend you take no chances and opt-out. To do so online, visit and fill out the form. You will need your Comcast account number from your bill. Print a copy of the form before submission and a copy of the acknowledgment after submission.

I'd like to hear if anyone recognized the notification when they were going through their bill. I'm also interested to know if customers on Comcast's automatic bill-pay plan were notified. Anyone? [sound of crickets]

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Free WiFi In Rockville

Free Broadband For Someone

Last week, AEPCO, (Advanced Engineering and Planning Corporation, Inc., of Gaithersburg, MD) agreed to provide free WiFi to the new town center of Rockville. If you haven't visited the location, you must. For a mix of shopping and culture, it's quite pretty. Although it doesn't measure up to the walking districts of towns and cities throughout Europe, it's a huge step up for anything that Rockville has had in the past. And kudos to putting the library right in the center. (But I will add my voice to those against naming it after a politician.)

No map has been made available, but the vague description suggests that the WiFi footprint will be similar to what is already available in Silver Spring. Here is the announcement from the city of Rockville.

Eventually, AEPCO plans to install WiFi service elsewhere in Rockville (perhaps even throughout) but residents will have to pay for the expanded service area. No prices have been made available. The announcement also notes "will allow for paid subscriptions for residents and businesses that want to have a higher bandwidth and a higher quality of service for indoor areas within Town Square." So, it will be a low-bandwidth connection. And users will need to re-authenticate (the announcement mentions an initial splash screen with advertising) periodically, making lengthy connections (e.g., substantial downloads) unlikely with the free service.

But for Rockville residents, this is a good thing. Not only does it make the town center more attractive but it suggests that there will be competition for internet service in Rockville. But before we start celebrating, note the time schedule: AEPCO has indicated that citywide expansion could occur within 24 months after service begins in Town Square. Within? Why does that sound like speeds up to 5Mb!

Free Broadband For Everyone

I live next to Glen Echo, the smallest town in Montgomery County (population: 221). It's a cozy place (how many towns have their own 86-year old carousel and Wurlitzer band organ?) and I frequently bike through it and always enjoy reading their newspaper, the Echo.

The current edition of the Echo has a curious item - the town was recently approached by the Coalition for Free Broadband and asked to write a letter to the FCC supporting the Coalition's proposal - that a nationwide network be established for free wireless internet access. The company behind this, M2Z Networks, claims that with 20MHz of currently-unused spectrum, they can offer "fast, free and family friendly broadband to 95 percent of the US population within ten years and pay 5% of gross revenues from its subscription services [insert lots of handwaving here].

M2Z has an application for the spectrum pending before the FCC and are looking for support. To my surprise, the Echo article says that "the Montgomery County Council and County Executive have agreed to support the Coalition's proposal."

Anyone know any more about this?