Thursday, March 01, 2012

Comcast Franchise Renewal

Comcast's franchise with Montgomery County was signed in 1998 to last a period of 15 years. I've never been through a renewal before but it's my understanding that in some sense, this is an opportunity to start from scratch. Anything in the prior agreement can be changed (except what is required by law).

In contrast, during the franchise, things that should be changed often don't get changed but there's little incentive for both sides to agree. We've seen this in the past with wording that turned out to be unclear such as the time it takes to reach a Comcast customer service representative by phone.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. For example, it is unclear how the franchise applies to internet service. Although the franchise does mention internet service, it is with no specificity and current interpretation is that all the promises in the franchise apply only to video service. But that's absurd given that both run over the same cable. If your cable drop is severed, should you get a faster repair date if you're a video subscriber but not if you're internet-only?

Although the county has managed to push through a few fixes to the franchise, now is the time to do substantial rewrites. The county is inviting citizens to participate in focus groups from March 19-24. Here's what the county's announcement says:
Each focus group lasts two hours and refreshments will be provided. The focus groups are organized to encourage people with like interests to attend the same meeting to facilitate brainstorming, but anyone may attend any focus group. The same presentation and same questions will be asked at each focus group. You DO NOT have to be a Comcast customer to participate.
  • Brainstorm about the future of Montgomery County Communications
  • Learn about the cable system, media communications and new cable and broadband technologies
  • Complete a questionnaire and help shape our future
You may wonder why it says you do not have to be a Comcast customer. There are several reasons for this. First, Comcast uses our rights-of-way so even if you're not a Comcast subscriber, you may be impacted by their use of the ROWs. (Imagine finding your lawn or driveway has been ripped up. Shouldn't you have some protections?) Second, the franchise generates money that is used by the county to fund other things. So you may benefit from these even if you don't pay any cable "taxes". Finally, if you have another provider such as Verizon, it's almost certain that when your provider's franchise is renewed, it will incorporate the same new terms.

To get more information on how to participate, go to Montgomery County's cable page.

Unfortunately, the county has organized its focus groups around organizations (neighborhood groups, religious groups, government agencies, etc.) so I suspect this will shape the ability to raise certain topics. And I mean that in a bad way.

Be prepared to hear a litany of "the county needs this" and "my organization deserves that" but also keep in mind that everything we ask for will ultimately come out of our pockets - just with an extra layer of provider profit grease in there as well. So I encourage you to ask for things to be cut back at the same time.

While I'm all for community, some of the expenditures that come out of the franchise are unjustifiable in my opinion. For instance, why do PEG channels require dedicated video channels when they can be streamed less expensively and accessed more conveniently over the web? And even if you find some of these "benefits" justifiable, ask whether it would be cheaper to pay for them explicitly rather than bury the costs behind layers of plans that make them difficult to control.

This bundling phenomenon is analogous to the question of who benefits from TV plans of 200 channels when we only watch 10 of them. (Answer: Not you.) What kind of pressure is needed to change this and other problems with our providers? Can we do it in the renewal or is it just a pro forma rubber stamp with a few goodies to fool citizens in to feeling they are getting something for nothing?

Lastly, while the county is controlling the participation process, there will be other opportunities. For example, there will be hearings and you can always contact the county council directly. The council itself must ultimately approve the franchise and council members can have a lot of influence in making changes to the franchise.

Let me know how you intend to participate (which focus groups) or any other ideas you may have for the renewal process.

1 comment:

Delegate Al Carr said...

Don, I always enjoy your posts. Thanks for continuing to cover cable & related issues.