Thursday, November 18, 2004

Irony for Comcast

At last night's meeting of the local cable advisory committee in lovely Montgomery County MD, the honchos from Comcast showed up to warn that we might be seeing higher complaint levels in the coming months. According to Comcast, Verizon had recently deployed 400 crews (with intentions of ramping up to 600) who had already cut 43 trunk lines and another 50 subscriber lines of Comcast. They described "thousands" of customers being affected.

So what was the irony? The irony was when one Comcast official lamented in the middle of her presentation that "if only Verizon was willing to share where they're working" then Comcast would be able to handle the situation more easily, knowing where they might expect downtime, send techs out, etc. Can Comcast now appreciate how customers feel when Comcast doesn't provide prior notice of their own work? Alas, I think the Comcast reps missed the irony.

They briefly showed us an incomplete map of the trunk cuts and most of them appeared to be in the area east of Bel Pre. There were also a bunch around Seven Locks & River. A second irony: Comcast sighed that the outages would probably be noticed by few people since they spent much the past year adding redundancy to the system. (They specifically mentioned the OTNs. Nothing about the nodes though.) So here Comcast had gone to all the extra expense to seemingly allow their competitor to trample all over their network?

Clearly that's not fair to Comcast - they really have spent a lot of money hardening their system and my own service shows - it's been much more robust in the last 12 months. However in fairness to both sides, Verizon representatives were not present at the meeting so it's hard to know how much stock to put in Comcast's assertions. (That's why I prefaced all my statements with "Comcast said.) Would it be surprising if Comcast blamed some problems on verizon out of convenience? Would it be surprising if Comcast is trying to make Verizon look irresponsible and a poor choice for an ISP? For example, Comcast might share some of the blame if they weren't burying their lines deeply enough. Comcast said that their main lines are 24" underground and subscriber drops are 12" underground. The Cable Office said that they should be 18". However, I've seen drops that aren't buried in any sense but are basically laying on top of the ground but under a veneer of dirt waiting for a landscaper to slice through them. And Comcast might also be failing to mark their lines properly. And so on. Comcast said that the local electric company (PepCo) and Washington Gas were having similar problems. We weren't given any statistics to back that up though. We need to make some inspections to find out the truth.

By the way, in case anyone is wondering about who is responsible for marking lines - Anyone doing underground work on a property is obligated to call MS Utility, a consortium of utilities. MS Utility contacts the individual utilities and requests that they mark their own lines. The utilities can mark their own lines, contract out the marking, or even ignore the request. Lest that last alternative sound silly, recognize that it may actually be cheaper to repair a cut than to mark a run. Yes, the customer is inconvenienced. But if 'inconvenience' costs the company less money, what do you think the company will do?

Comcast was also raked over the coals for their latest rate increase. Not for the increase itself which is a fact of life but for the way they did it. It came in a plain envelope with no Comcast markings and no external markings that it was a rate increase. And inside was a flyer with small print.

Personally, I didn't see what the fuss was about. To me it looked like the type of subdued mailing that might contain something like a credit card so I opened it and immediately recognized it for what it was. But most of the other members were pretty upset seemingly implying that Comcast was trying to push through a rate increase under the radar.

To some extent they have a point. For me, I look at the bills I pay but I know many people don't look very closely. Even worse, many people let Comcast directly deduct funds from their bank accounts. These people still get bills but you gotta figure that most of them don't look at the bills and wouldn't catch on to the rate increase.

Comcast's Director of Public Affairs said that it was "probably" an oversight and she would see to it that it didn't happen again. Good enough for me. I wish I could tell everyone not to use automatic billing but I tried to make this be an official committee policy a few months back and was voted down. Too many people see it as a wonderful convenience. Maybe the time is right to bring it up again.

Personally, I think the next envelope we'll be seeing may well have a rate *decrease* (hooray for competition) in which case it will be EMBOSSED IN GOLD AND SENT CERTIFIED INSURED RETURN-RECEIPT REQUESTED along with full page ads in the Washington Post. In the meantime, expect to see the new rates Jan 1 '05 (since Comcast bills a month in advance).

Speaking of which, the Cable Office reports that Verizon has received permission (from the County) to use the rights of way for the purpose of providing internet service. However, Verizon has not yet approached the county for the purpose of gaining a video franchise which the county believes they would need in order to provide video service. I'm not so sure they would need it. But what do I know?