Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What's Your Privacy Worth

Recently, I wrote about Comcast's privacy policies and mentioned that, as a cable franchise, they have a requirement (weak though it may be) for their privacy policy to meet certain standards. While reading the legal notices in the newspaper (you know, those articles printed in 7 point type stuffed in as filler in random places around the paper), I came across this one:
If you were a Time Warner Cable subscriber any time between January, 1994 and December, 1998, you may be eligible for free cable services from a class action settlement ....
Ohhhh, Free Cable!

The class action is over Time Warner selling personal information of their subscribers without their permission or knowledge. I guess that was before the cable companies figured out they could tell customers in such a way that they'd still be oblivious to it - with legalese so impenetrable that no one could possibly be sure what it meant - assuming they were still awake after the first three sentences.

I'll cut to the chase. The terms of the proposed settlement are as follows: one free month of cable service. Yep. That's it. In return for giving away your private data, you get a month of cable service! How fair is that?

And it's worth even less than it sounds at first. Because if you're a TW subscriber, it's not your entire bill but rather an extra channel or service that you don't already get, such as HDTV. In other words, you get to choose something that you probably don't want because if you did, you'd already have bought it! Alternatively, you can choose two Movies On Demand. Ok, let's be generous and estimate this is worth $15 total. (And costs the company zip.)

And if you're a former subscriber, the terms are equally meager: Yes, you get a free month of cable service but, of course, the only package you can get without paying extra is basic cable which is typically only a dozen or so channels. No, you're not going to even get the entire analog line-up of 100 or so channels because technically, that's two packages: basic plus expanded basic. (Remember, you can't get expanded basic without paying for basic.) But it's a moot point because any "former" subscribers are probably former because they either 1) live out of the TW area (in which case they can't get the service) or 2) are getting what they want from alternate TV providers (i.e., satellite) and aren't about to switch back for a month.

One more possibility: Former customers can also donate their settlement to someone else. Right. As if you're going to call some old neighbors and take 20 minutes of their time to try to explain to them what this pathetic little turd is that you're bequeathing them with IF they jump through the appropriate hoops not to mention even want it in the first place.

And that's what your privacy is worth.

By the way, there is one party sure to be happy with the settlement. The settlement includes a $5,000,000 payment to the law firms responsible for the settlement proposal. I guess your privacy is worth something after all.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Comcast's New Residential Phone Service

Starting last week, Comcast began rolling out phone service (called "Digital Voice") in parts of Maryland and Virginia. The Comcast press release specifically says Montgomery County residents can get service (although when I visited the website to try to sign up, it told me I was ineligible).

Why would you want to switch your phone service from Verizon to Comcast? Or from a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) provider to Comcast?

I suppose it would help if you hate The Phone Company. There is a long tradition of hating The Phone Company (ok, I'll stop calling it that), the model of a large faceless uncaring corporation that you have to pay every month like it or not. If you're old enough, you probably remember how it gradually became worse and worse to deal with Verizon or perhaps Bell Atlantic or even AT&T or whatever it was called as it merged and morphed over time. Unions, deregulation, reregulation, mergers, and competition from cell phones, VoIP, etc., have provided plenty of excuses for the difficulties that Verizon has gone through.

More recently, the failure to deliver any kind of a competititve broadband solution to most of Montgomery County has allowed Comcast to eat Verizon's internet lunch. And now VoIP is eroding Verizon's traditional telephony business.

Verizon is attempting to reinvent itself with fiber-to-the-home but they have to earn their customers all over again. I still remember the ever-rising costs, absurd extra charge for touch tone dialing, for caller ID, and the inability to reach Verizon outside of "normal business hours."

The question is whether Comcast provides a meaningful alternative. And Comcast not only has to compete with Verizon but with the many VoIP providers.

Surprisingly, Comcast's price for telephone service ($39.95 when bundled with TV service) is exactly the same as traditional phone service from Verizon's "Freedom Essentials" plan which includes unlimited nationwide calling and features such as caller id. (The Comcast package has additional features but none that I would pay extra for.)

But Verizon also offers a VoIP package (VoiceWing Unlimited) that is significantly cheaper at $29.95. And of course, there are many other VoIP providers such as Vonage, Skype, and SunRocket that are even cheaper. I'm on SunRocket's pay-by-the-year plan which works out to less than $17/month for unlimited nationwide calling. The much more popular Vonage is $24.99. Skype is representative of a number of services that offer free computer-to-computer calls with per-minute charges only for connections to the traditional phone network.

One differentiating factor of Comcast's VoIP service is that it uses different routing and prioritization for voice packets. This should enable better reliability and quality (enable but not guarantee, ahem). As a VoIP user myself, I am well aware that the quality of the voice is not always as good as a traditional telephone circuit. One of the problems of my VoIP provider is that it's dependent on Comcast's internet service - which isn't reliable! (Isn't that ironic? The way Comcast chose to improve on VoIP is to avoid relying on their own internet service!) Will the quality of Comcast phone service achieve traditional phone quality? Whether this is true in practice depends on how Comcast manages their internal network capacity and how Comcast manages other aspects of their services.

Comcast's advertisements tout additional features such as web access to voicemail as well as more traditional extras (3-party calling, for example). So there is a possible customer for Comcast - the person who wants all the high-tech features and isn't on a budget - then Comcast VoIP may be attractive.

However, one thing may stop people dead in their tracks. For years, outages have been a regular event. Comcast may be pouring tons of money into improving infrastructure, but for many people the Comcast name will long be associated with unreliability, exactly the opposite one wants from a phone connection. Imagine your phone stops working - but you can't call Comcast about it because ... your phone doesn't work! Oh but we have cell phones to cover this eventuality right?

All of Comcast's previous products have been "best effort, no guarantees", so you have to wonder why this should be any different. I'm not aware of Comcast having any experience with high-reliability services. I've no experience with their business packages but this new phone service is aimed at residences - and it's hard to imagine that Comcast will start offering first-class service all of a sudden. What I expect:
"I'm sorry to hear your phone doesn't work, sir, but we show a strong signal on your line. Could you please disconnect all your computers in the house, pull the cable out of the modem and powercycle your modem and telephone adaptor? That didn't work? Ok, I'm rebuilding your account, please try again in about 45 minutes and call back if it still doesn't work. Then we'll schedule a service call to your home - will you be available sometime next week?"
And Comcast's record of customer service is poor. In the past, I have put up with it only because cable was my only choice for high-speed internet access. Will other people put up with it given the choice? And even worse is Comcast billing. In our franchise area, the county cable office frequently reported that half the complaints they received each month were billing problems. I don't know why billing was always such a disaster for Comcast but it makes me cringe to read Comcast's latest advertisements touting "only one bill" as a benefit. And I already have difficulty understanding the bills now! (You'd think it should be easy when the bill is the same each month, but noooo....) Anyway, turning my phone bill over to Comcast's billing department sounds like it would only increase my headaches, not decrease them. (If I were to order Comcast's phone service, I would insist it be on a separate bill.)

For these reasons, it is hard to imagine more than a fraction of Comcast's customers being attracted to their VoIP service. For people that want traditional voice quality and reliability, they can still get that from Verizon and at the same price. For people willing to risk quality in the interest of saving money, just about anyone else's VoIP product will be cheaper.

Bottom Line

Will people really move their phones - for no financial savings - phones that have been working for years without problems on Verizon - to Comcast, a company that has long been associated with poor customer service, unreliable connections, billing headaches, and ever soaring rates? Let me know if you sign up and why.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Verizon FIOS TV Franchise Status Report

Since late September of 2005, Verizon has been rolling out FIOS TV to communities across the US. Verizon's own website has press releases on them.

This includes such DC-area jurisdictions as Fairfax County (est. 351,000 households) and Herndon, VA (est. 22,000 households).

So where's Montgomery County on the list? MC has many potential customers (324,000 households, median income $84K/family) and roughly half the county is wired with Verizon fiber already. Sounds like a golden opportunity, yes?

You'd Think So

When I first reported on the Verizon franchise process, I hypothesized that the signing of a franchise would take roughly 6 months. This was based on my experience watching the county sign two deals with Comcast and two with Starpower/RCN - and the reality that Verizon had a large investment of fiber in the ground already and was raring to go. I actually said "Look for passage by the end of the year. Actual implementation is anyone's guess." What I meant by that was the papers would be signed by December 31, 2005 and that we'd get actual service some time after that. The actual deployment would depend in large part to where you lived in the county. Some neighborhoods have fiber already. Some won't have it for a year, possibly more.

However, at successive MFP meetings, the Cable Office reported progress on the franchise was proceeding slower than expected. And I could tell that was true. We should've had council hearings (we have not) and public hearings (we have not) even before the council hearings. During a CCAC meeting just two days ago, Cable Office staff described some of the difficulties they were encountering. Rather than repeat the trivia, I will read between the lines - Verizon is NOT interested in a quick rollout of FIOS TV in MC.

I can only speculate what the problem is but it's likely a combination of several things:
  • loss of local top Verizon executives in Montgomery County. Now the county has to deal with Verizon executives in Chicago who don't readily drop round for discussions. (Curiously, this week's Potomac Almanac reported on the Montgomery County Executive's Ball. Nominally, a benefit for the arts and humanities, the Ball is more suitably described as a thinly disguised excuse to do some politicking in support of MC Executive Duncan's run for the Maryland governorship. In attendance - Don Heath, who until last month was in charge of Verizon's MD/DC FIOS project. Hmm.)

  • wariness from Verizon being raked over the coals by MC on the fiber install problems (discussed here earlier).

  • Verizon lawyers are, after all, pretty busy and there are plenty of opportunities to sign franchises elsewhere.

  • Verizon is waiting for Congress to make a decision on the future of cable regulation.
The last point bears deserves further explanation. There are at least three bills pending in Congress that would change the way cable companies (and Verizon currently qualifies as such) are franchised. The bills range from franchising at the state-level to no franchising at all. Needless to say, Verizon is presumably thinking that it's not worth the effort to create a local MC franchise if it's all going to be for naught in a few months.

So why is Verizon signing franchises in other localities? These other localities are much smaller or simpler than Montgomery County. MC is big, complex, has some unusual requirements and most importantly, has some very savvy people that would be creating the franchise. So while Verizon may be quick to jump all over small communities such as Keller TX, their efforts with MC won't be as easily rewarded.

So what does this mean? The telecommunications field is in a huge state of flux - and may well be for years! But one thing is clear, all transmission mechanisms are converging. Phone, video, internet, ... and so on, are all in a sense the same thing (packets). Currently regulations treat them all separately with wildly differing laws and, while historically understandable, make little sense to continue and get ever more baroque. As a simple example, why should a company accept onerous cable TV regulations if they can turn around deliver video over the unregulated internet? Or burdensome phone regulations in the presence of unregulated VoIP?

The franchise rationale is just as conflicted. While franchises create an unfair playing field in the TV domain (after all, satellite TV providers don't need franchises), franchises do provide a regulatory mechanism which can have valid benefits (trust me, you don't want an ungrounded connection to the cable system). And there are similar arguments and trade-offs for franchising at a local level vs national level.

The bottom line is that Congress has a very tough problem on their hands. (And knowing how Congress works, there's no reason to believe they will come up with simpler and more sensible regulations. But that's for another discussion.) And I am not holding my breath for a rapid resolution, particularly with so many alternatives being pushed at the same time.

For this reason, I believe Verizon is making a major mistake by delaying a franchise in MC. Six months can turn to a year or two rather quickly. Verizon is missing the opportunity to catch ex-Comcast customers before they move to satellite. Or phone customers before they move to any of the hundreds of VoIP providers.

It is ironic that Verizon even today is spending handsomely on advertising describing how their efforts will pay off for the citizens of MC. Between all the full page ads that the Gazette is carrying for both Comcast and Verizon each week, the Gazette owners must be very happy. Of course, I've given up tracking Comcast's ads and promotions. For Verizon FIOS, I have personally received 18 full-color flyers in 5 different designs, one UPS mailing, and one personal visit from a team of salespeople (who were so ill-prepared that they managed to find a time to visit my home when I wasn't present and then left no message that they had been there). Oh, and I've had a man sitting in a "FIOS car" parked on my street for a day. The car was bedecked in FIOS colors (which I actually think make a pretty good logo - see, I'm not totally negative!) but the occupant was unable to answer any questions about the service. ("I'm just paid to sit here all day. I've got my Starbucks and my crossword puzzle - I'm happy.") although he did confess that at his own home, he was unable to get FIOS. His provider? Comcast.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Complaining For The Wrong Reasons

There was a curious article in the Gazette recently. Alas, I cannot provide you with a link - the Gazette appears to be a little too picky with what they decide to make available online. (I sent email to the Editor asking why I couldn't find the article in their search engine - despite knowing the exact title and date of publication! It's been two weeks and still no reply from the Gazette.)

The article ("Officials criticize Comcast rate Hike", Nov 9 2005) describes how Comcast is raising their rates. In newspaper advertisements, Comcast explains that fees are going up because of "increasing operating expenses and other investments and increased PEG/I-Net fees paid to Montgomery County." At least half of this statement is a lie.

PEG/I-Net fees are not going up. According to the article, the fee remains at $1.50 per customer for 2006 just as for 2005. (An official of the Cable Office informs me that actual 2005 rate was actually a few pennies less ... close enough though.) But for some time, Comcast's bills have been informing customers that the fee is only $1.25. Now the bills have been changed to reflect the true amount. BUT ... the bottom line on your bill is going up by the difference - which Comcast is pocketing, which makes their advertisements rather confusing and, in some people's minds, outright misleading.

This is a 20% rise in a fee and the County has undoubtedly been receiving calls from citizens irate at the substantial jump. So county officials are doing their best to explain that it's not their fault rates are rising - which is technically true. But also true is that the rates - rates directly traceable to the county government - are high to begin with!

So if you want to complain to the county about high fees - go ahead - just make sure you complain for the right reasons!

We Now Return You To Your Regularly Scheduled Price Hikes

Comcast raises rates each year on January 1 and holds rates throughout the year (though specials that come and go make it seem like their rates are changing regularly). The Jan 1 tradition is in part due to regulatory reasons - the FCC only permits regulated rates to change once per year. However this year, the regulated rate for basic service is not rising. But the most popular package rate (the entire analog lineup, called "preferred service") is going up (from $49.82 to 52.15 plus fees). And prices for other packages and hardware (converter boxes, etc) are going up as well.

This 4.6% increase is a significantly smaller rise than previous years. The reason is undoubtedly due to competition from Verizon. Oh, I suppose Comcast may have also cut back on expenses - their loss of numerous senior executives probably helps.

Ok, that's a small joke. The reality is that the senior staff is very important. In that sense, Comcast has yet to deliver. And from the looks of it, they appear to be heading in the wrong direction. Some of their senior staff are still "Acting" and, even more surprising, Comcast has announced that their new General Manager for Montgomery County will also be responsible for Prince Georges County as well. This roughly doubles the number of subscribers that that the GM will be responsible for. That does not bode well for our future.

Starpower Hikes Prices, Too

According to officials from the Cable Office, RCN (nee Starpower) is also raising its rates - by a screaming 18%. Despite that jump, RCN's cable prices will STILL be cheaper than Comcast's!

Unfortunately, the RCN website doesn't have the new prices so I'm going by information given to my by the MC Cable Office. I even called RCN support - nope, they have no knowledge of new prices, sigh. But I believe the Cable Office officials since new price announcements must first be approved by the county. (More specifically, the County gets 5 days to comment on any notification of price changes before being released to the public.)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Cable Communications Advisory Committee Appointments

The County Executive has made the following appointments to the Montgomery County CCAC (Cable Communications Advisory Committee).
  • Yen-Ju Chen (re-appointment)
  • Elizabeth Irons (re-appointment)
  • Trish Evans
  • David Friedman
  • Joy Ragsdale
  • Jim Schleckser
  • Suzanne Weiss
These appointments are subject to approval by the council, tentatively scheduled for December 13, 2005.

Town Hall Meeting Announcement

The Montgomery County Council is holding a Town Hall Meeting this coming Monday evening (Dec 5 '05). If you want to ask questions (for example "What's the holdup with the Verizon TV Franchise?") or make statements ("We need competition, please find out what's holding up the Verizon TV Franchise."), this would be a splendid opportunity since the entire council will be present. The meeting will also be broadcast on County Cable Montgomery channel 6.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Oct 24 '05 MFP Review - The Replacements

Both the usual and the usual happened at the October 24 '05 quarterly review of Montgomery County's franchisee performance.

The Replacements

First, the usual.

Comcast noted that the General Manager role was temporarily being filled by Jaye Gamble, a regional director at Comcast. Jay didn't show up for the meeting. Representing Comcast was Angela Lee, also a regional officer, so she's Acting as well. RCN sent Richard Wadman. And Verizon weighed in with a replacement as well: Brianna Gowen. Previous Director of the FIOS project, Donald Heath, resigned. Sigh.

Finally, MC Cable Administrator Jane Lawton is likely to be stepping down from her position as MC Cable Administrator. This is pending confirmation by Governor Erlich to a Maryland Delegate seat. Although a delegate seat is only a 3-month/year occupation, according to the Cable Office, a legislator cannot also hold a regulatory position. In the future, I hope to give Jane a proper sendoff with a blog entry covering just her - she has after all served in this position for 10 years and through tumultuous times - but I'll hold off until she's confirmed.


And now the usual.

The county noted that Comcast was again over the permitted levels of violations in several areas. Furthermore, Comcast had failed to turn in the required reports on time for 4 of the last 5 months. Comcast was also taking too long to fix safety-related issues. The county was prepared to issue a fine, using the "liquidated damages" section of the franchise.

RCN, by comparison, was doing much better; however, Cable Administrator Lawton noted that she was having problems getting her phone calls returned since the company's liaison had gone on maternity leave. This seemed to be a total surprise to the RCN rep in attendence. How can stuff like this happen?

For Verizon, it was good news / bad news. The good news was that complaints were down significantly. (However, that didn't stop Comcast from returning to the all our troubles are due to Verizon theme.) The bad news is that nobody was able to say anything positive about the proposed Verizon TV franchise. Actually, Verizon vaguely said it was going well. But the Cable Office said Verizon had not responded to their most recent proposal. And the Council couldn't understand why it was totally out of the loop. Summary: Not good. If the franchise is signed by April, I'd be surprised.

In other words, the phrase of the day was continued posturing. Does anything ever change? The council members raised the same questions as they always do. For example:
  • Why does Comcast insist their internet reports (required by county code) are impossible to provide?
  • Why does Comcast advertise for new customers when they can't appear to handle their existing customers?
  • Why does Comcast tell us things that aren't true - such as school connections being completed when they haven't been?
  • Why does Verizon shower us with statistics that seem to be, oh shall we say, meaningless?

Wrap Up

The council finished up the day with some more empty threats about how mad they were - both at the franchisees and at the county executive. The council has the power to make things happen but all I see at present are empty words.

Lastly, you can view some the council's prep material here. The council complained (for the nth time) about the Cable Office turning its report in late so that it could not be included in the Council's prep material. Same for Verizon. (Comcast and RCN don't even turn anything in, sigh.)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Comcast Privacy Practices

Normally, I don't spend time commenting on national news - plenty of other people do that already - and just keeping up with the local events takes all the time I can afford to give. However, this news is close enough to home that I feel obliged to comment on it.

Recently, a town councilmember in Smyrna, Delaware tried to find out the identity of a blogger. The blogger had accused the councilmember of "obvious mental deterioration" and made a pun on his name suggesting he was gay.

ISPs generally will not turn over subscriber information except when required by court order. And such a court order was made - to Comcast. However, the case was appealed and ultimately worked its way to the Delaware Supreme Court. That court ruled that the anonymous blogging was akin to anonymous political pamphleteering, a subject that the US Supreme Court has ruled on.

Specifically, the statements were found to be opinion; Chief Justice Myron Steele wrote: ... no reasonable person could have interpreted these statements as being anything other than opinion. ... The statements are, therefore, incapable of a defamatory meaning.

Bottom line: Comcast was not forced to expose the blogger's identity.

Good job Comcast!

Or is it? What about Comcast's other privacy practices? Probably few people read Comcast's subscriber privacy policy. It's difficult to understand, boring as hell, and well, what's the big deal? Didn't Comcast just show that it protected a subscriber's identity?

Yes, but Comcast's privacy policy nonetheless raises significant concerns. You might even call them holes. Giant gaping holes.

Comcast actually has several privacy policies. For instance, it's got for internet service. And it's got another for TV service. And another for phone service. And yet another for their website.

Each of them explains that simply by using the service, you accept their privacy policy - whether or not you have read it. Or agree with it.

Let's delve into their internet privacy policy for a moment. Their policy mentions a dispute resolution process and alludes to compliance with TRUSTe, but a closer read finds many exclusions. In short, if you disagree with Comcast's privacy policy, your only recourse is to avoid using their service.


What are some examples of the holes in Comcast's Internet Privacy Policy?
  1. "Co-branded" Services. Services operated by other companies but with Comcast's name are not covered by the privacy policy. If you enter data about yourself, the company is free to do what it wants with it. This includes services such as newsgroups, video mail, instant messaging, and web hosting. Oh and let's not forget support. Since half of Comcast's support is carried out by contractors, anyone who calls in a few times is highly likely to have exposed their personal information to the privacy policies of other companies; policies that you have not read or have any idea about.

  2. Marketing. Although Comcast's privacy policy says it is "committed to maintaining your privacy" there are too many holes in the words surrounding that phrase. For example, consider this: Comcast may combine personally identifiable information, which we collect as part of our regular business records, with personally identifiable information obtained from third parties for the purpose of creating an enhanced personal database to use in marketing and other activities related to the Service and our other services.
Who knows what that could mean? Elsewhere, the policy is more overt: Comcast may use and disclose personally identifiable information as provided for by applicable law in order to perform, for example: ... marketing.

And this: We sometimes disclose personally identifiable information about you to our affiliates but with no explanation of what "affiliates" are.

And this: We sometimes also disclose personally identifiable information about you to our employees for Comcast's internal business purposes, as well as to outside auditors, professional advisors and service providers, potential business transition partners, and regulators. ... We may also disclose certain personally identifiable information about you to third parties such as, for example, charities, marketing organizations, or other businesses, in connection with disclosures made for "mailing list" or other purposes as described below in this Policy.

And not only can personally identifiable information include your name, address, cable plan, and usage, but also your internal computer settings, cookies, preferences, and so on.

Finally - not that it matters by now - Comcast reserves the right to change their policy at any time and without notification: If we change this Policy, we will post those changes on the homepage of the Service Web site, or in other places we deem appropriate, so our subscribers are aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. We will use information in accordance with the Privacy Policy under which the information was collected. Your decision to continue receiving the Service after we make any changes to this Policy shall be deemed to be your express consent to the changes in the revised Policy.

Cable Office Weighs In

The Montgomery County Cable Office is also upset about Comcast's Privacy Policy. However they only have authority over the Cable TV Privacy Policy. Their TV policy has some differences from their internet policy. And it is further governed by the 1984 Cable Privacy Act. However their TV policy also has distressing similarities. Yes, there are enough loopholes in it that Comcast could be said to be adhering to the letter of the law if not the spirit of it.

However one clear violation is as follows: The Comcast franchise (see section 9.f.4) with Montgomery County requires all information distributed to customers - including the privacy policy - to be approved by the Cable Office. And Comcast has not done that. Instead, Comcast has claimed that they now have a national policy and do not have the flexibility to have a local policy that would be different.

As I understand it then, Comcast is in violation of the franchise and the County has not seen fit to live up to its responsibility and take action. Yes, they have notified Comcast but basically Comcast has ignored them. I have no inside knowledge of these interactions but I can only presume that the Cable Administrator has informed the Executive and the Executive has declined to take further action.

This is a mistake. Protection from abuse by our franchisees is one of the reason we pay our franchise fees - that's 5% on top of the bill that goes directly to the county. In addition, disinterest in enforcing parts of the franchise opens the door for Comcast to ignore other parts with similar reasoning.


So there you have it. Comcast gets headlines for protecting subscriber privacy with one hand while at the same time, well, not protecting subscribe privacy with the other hand. Don't like the policy? Too bad. By using the service, you have already accepted it.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Open Mike, Close Ears

In a recent letter to constituents, Montgomery County Councilmember Mike Knapp, rehashes the Verizon FIOS installation saga. Cleverly called "Open Mike", the letter is just a little too open in my opinion - lacking any references or statistics for his assertions. I don't like it.

For example, he says "Frankly, I'm not sure a day still passes where we don’t get one, sometimes many complaints." He's not sure? Huh? Then why say it? How many complaints is his office really getting? Why is his communique free of any actual numbers?

Another example of Mike's pearls: "And now, last evening, I was notified that more than a thousand Germantown residents had lost their cable because Verizon’s subcontractor and cut through their cable lines." Notified by whom? The letter says it was delivered to the council Sept 20 but I've seen no complaints on broadbandreports (where such outages are commonly reported) that would serve to back up his assertion. Could everyone in the Germantown area who reads this and lost connectivity then, email me? Or even one? Details (specifically time, duration, and location), please.

Knapp goes on to make other assertions, such as this one about driveways being "torn apart" saying "If the driveway is fixed, it is often fixed poorly." Torn apart? Fixed poorly? Often? Where are the numbers to back these assertions up? Photos?

Knapp continues that he "read in the newspaper that Verizon was still rather lamely asserting that the problem didn’t really lie with them, but rather with allegedly mislabeled utility lines.  According to Verizon, it was someone else’s fault." Councilmember, what newspaper did you read that in? None of those which I read characterized it as "lamely" or anything close to it.

Wait, it just occurred to me what's going on. Knapp missed the previous council meeting at which Comcast made the same assertion only to have it blow up in their face. And none of his staffers briefed him on the outcome. Councilmember Knapp - please get up to speed. Review the notes from the meeting. Or read some blogs. Yes, Verizon is causing problems for Comcast. But your hyperbole isn't helping. The reality is that Comcast shares a large part of the blame. Verizon isn't saying they're blame-free. When you claim that they are, it makes you look uninformed and unhelpful - as if you cannot even understand the paper that you claim to read and cite. And cannot understand the council meeting notes that you haven't taken the time to carefully review.

Upcoming Quarterly Review of Comcast, RCN/Starpower, and Verizon

The Montgomery County Council's MFP Committee reviews the performance of its franchisees Comcast and RCN (nee Starpower) every three months. It's that time again. And Verizon is getting to be a regular invitee as well. Join me in person or watch using the county's video streaming or archive service. Of course, cable customers can also watch it live on TV. (Does anyone do this?) I plan to attend in person. The handouts are just too good to miss - and due to the poor quality of the video feeds, you can't read the viewgraphs except in person. Best of all, I can't wait to see which new sacrificial lamb Comcast sends this time.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Stop-Work Orders

In the Sept 21 '05 issue of the MC Gazette there is a brief article covering a County Council session in which Verizon was discussed. Specifically, the council debated whether they could issue stop-work orders on permits that they had previously approved for Verizon, due to the continuing complaints from citizens about damage caused by Verizon's fiber installers.

Oddly, the council session is not listed in their published agenda so I heard nothing about it until this article appeared. Even now, no such meeting is listed at the county website. I'm going to inquire about this oversight.

According to the Gazette, the debate arose during a discussion of Verizon's application for a cable franchise. What is interesting is that a cable franchise would normally include negotiation for access to the rights-of-way. But in this case, Verizon already has such access (except within Rockville, sigh) as it was granted for their internet and phone service. So the County has lost a bit of leverage when it comes to negotiating the franchise. Is the combination of citizen complaints and gaining leverage back that much incentive to stop Verizon from continuing its FIOS installation?

More importantly, do Verizon's negatives outweigh Verizon's positive for the county? Although I'm not about to suggest we hand over the keys to the, ... um, county, there's no doubt that the council is going to give Verizon a franchise. It's inevitable. The county needs the competition. Desperately. Even now, with Verizon starting to erode Comcast's huge head start of internet subscribers, Comcast continues to rack up the complaints. I just don't see how Verizon could do worse.

Among comments of unhappiness from various councilmembers, the Gazette quoted Councilmember Subin saying "I'm not prepared to vote in favor of a franchise agreement that got that with practices that are questionable." Oh really. Where was all this questioning when Comcast's franchise agreement was signed. Comcast's history was just as bad if not worse - and the council eagerly signed. And signed again during the renegotiation two ago, giving up another opportunity to jettison the company. Well, if Verizon has any memory (and they must as the director of the FIOS project, Donald Heath, attended Comcast's franchise hearings), they must realize that the council is merely posturing for the cameras. Comcast's in this case.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Comcast General Manager Resigns

The most senior official in charge of Comcast in Montgomery County has resigned. After only 2 years on the job, General Manager and VP Craig Snedeker resigned for "personal" reasons according to company spokesman Jim Gorden in this week's Gazette.

Why Am I Not Surprised

Snedeker arrived on the heels of the disasterous period 2 years ago when performance was so bad that the county flexed its muscle by establishing cable modem regulations and further extending regulations for all customers (both HSI and TV) with the creation of the Cable Compliance Commission. This had to have been a huge wakeup call to Comcast Corporate. God forbid, other franchises should follow MC's lead.

So Comcast dumped the GM at the time (Sue Reinhold) and brought in GM-extraordinaire Snedeker. What did he do? Well, a few things did improve such as adding redundant hardware in places. But as far as I could tell, customer service was a non-priority while the company aimed at higher-margin products, specifically, the high-end video products such as digital TV and HDTV. Apart from that emphasis on higher profit, Snedeker spent time rubbing elbows with politicos and continuing Comcast's tradition of corporate largesse to pacify community groups - but what about the customers? You guessed it - plenty of customers have continued to be unhappy with Comcast service.

Complaint levels filed with county regulators are now higher than we've ever seen. Part of this is no doubt due to Verizon installers inadvertently cutting Comcast lines. But, as I personally testified at a county hearing last month, many complaints could not possibly be the cause of Verizon. Comcast must shoulder the blame. I don't know if Comcast has been cutting costs on training or squeezing out money elsewhere, but quality seems to be disappearing as well. And with that go the customers.

Comcast has never released the number of cable modem subscribers in Montgomery County but I've regularly heard estimates of 100,000+ along with estimates of 220,000 TV customers. Now that competition is increasingly available from Verizon, and with lower rates at that, one can only imagine the number of customers fleeing the sinking ship. Indeed, all of my co-workers who have been offered Verizon FIOS have taken it and dumped Comcast HSI. Reports of FIOS performance and price have been enthusiastic. Here's an example from Walt Mossberg who lives in Montgomery County and writes the Personal Technology column for the Wall Street Journal.

In the past, customers have had little choice for residential broadband (small percentages of the county received DSL and/or StarPower). In a sense, Comcast was a de facto monopoly. There are fewer monopoly issues with TV reception as most citizens can get similar service from satellite providers. However, certain shows can only be found on local cable providers, such as the PEG channels and certain sporting events to which Comcast owned the rights. However, Verizon is in negotiation with the county for a cable franchise (yes, even though they use fiber, it's still called a "cable franchise") and when that is available, we can expect the other shoe to drop. Many customers will see no reason to put up with further shoddy service at a higher cost.

I'm sure that General Manager and VP Craig Snedeker could read the future pretty easily. Without any expectations that customers will get better service, why would they stay? Better to leave now than with the horrible blot on his record of presiding over a company boasting fabulous technology but losing customers and revenue.

And Snedeker is not the only one to depart. As I've covered earlier, other high-level Comcast of MC executives have also fled the company, most recently Snedeker's point man, Melody Khalatburi, who was elevated to senior whipping boy for the County Council during its most recently quarterly review of the franchise when neither Snedeker nor Ellen Bogage showed up - this at a meeting in which Comcast asserted that Verizon was the real culprit in Comcast's horrible complaint statistics.

A reader of this blog asked me if I knew where Snedeker has jumped off to. I do not know. I've never even met the man. Although I'm on speaking terms (or at least was until they all up and quit) with many Comcast execs, I don't recall Snedeker coming to any of the hearings or meetings that I attended. That in itself is probably a good reflection of his focus ... or lack thereof. So Comcast is searching for a new general manager for Montgomery County. I wish them luck. As Councilmember Praisner was quoted by the Gazette, "I hope that anyone they hire understands importance of customer service in Montgomery."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Bogage is Back

Ellen Bogage, erstwhile Director of Government and Community Affairs for Comcast of Montgomery County was saluted in this week's MC Gazette.

The big news? Bogage has become chair of the Committee for Montgomery. According to the article, the CfM is a coalition of county leaders from business, labor, education, civic and community organizations. One such member: Comcast.

What I found more interesting from reading the article - Ellen has formed her own consulting business. The only reported client: Comcast.

Could the Committee of Montgomery simply be a strategy to overpower the voice of citizens at county hearings? By organizing businesses and non-business associations, that would make a very powerful voice - even more powerful than the MC Chamber of Commerce (on which Ellen serves as Vice-Chair of Legislative Affairs) or the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce which had officers testify at Comcast hearings with pro-Comcast opinions while not revealing their affiliations with Comcast. As a visit to their website will reveal, Comcast is a major sponsor of the BCCCC.

As CfM Chair, Bogage is quoted saying that "We don't take a public position on an issue unless 85 percent of board members agree." That's a very high percentage, yes, but on the other hand, it leaves enough wiggle room that voices representing non-business concerns could be edged out. But that may not even be an issue since only the board participates in votes, not the full committee. It will be interesting to see the board - should it ever be made public (Google reports no website at this time) - and what percentage is incestuously related by Comcast business concerns.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Goodbye Melody

Four days after the painful July 25 MFP meeting, Melody Khalatbari resigned her position as Public Affairs Manager of Comcast of Montgomery County. Melody had been Comcast's spokesperson at the MFP meeting, a meeting which I described as blowing up in Comcast's face. Comcast had been attempting to lay the cause of their woes at Verizon's feet but instead ended up looking even worse than before. Melody's attempts to explain, excuse, and misdirect were feeble - although I didn't blame her so much as her superiors who handed her this stinking pile of ....uh, difficult job.

One hypothesis is that Melody got handed her walking papers based on her performance at the meeting. However, I'm not sure that makes sense given the lack of Comcast management at the meeting to observe her! (Before you suggest my blog had any influence, I'd say my poor service from Comcast has to discount that theory.)

Whatever the reason, Melody left Comcast on August 8 and began working at Verizon's Maryland offices one week later, August 15, according to Comcast allegations as reported in a Washington Post article by Cameron Barr. Interestingly, Barr reported that only three days later, Melody was no longer employed by Verizon.


The Post article goes on to report that Comcast alleges that they found evidence that Melody mailed confidential documents to her personal email account. The documents included Comcast's "top customers", "VIP customers", and "happy customers" (going by email subject names), emailed in the "days immediately preceding her resignation." Comcast sued Khalatbari in federal court and seeks compensatory damages of "more than $75,000" according to the Post article.

Where's The Beef?

Of course, these are only allegations and not proof. Conceivably, Comcast could have created evidence of sent emails to provide grounds for a lawsuit in order to force Verizon to release her. Indeed, I don't see why lists of good customers are particularly valuable. In some other businesses, like say, catering, good customers are worth soliciting by a competitor. But in the cable business, good customers aren't the kind likely to move to a competitor. Rather, it is the unhappy customers that want an alternative. If Melody wanted to deliver valuable information to Verizon, she should have given them unhappy customers.

Of course, that's only one type of confidential information that would be useful to a competitor. Marketing plans, future technologies, packages, and pricing - these are things that a competitor would find valuable. But they are not the documents reported as taken. So this all raises many questions about whether these allegations are true. For me, I'll need to hear more. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The CCAC Wants You

Montgomery County Maryland is looking to fill 6 vacancies on its citizen telecommunications advisory committee (CCAC). The CCAC's primary responsibility is to provide advice to the County Council and the County Executive regarding telecommunication issues such as the cable franchise. The committee meets one evening a month and is uncompensated.

Having served on the committee, I can tell you that service on the committee has its good points and bad points.

The Bad Points
  • Since the committee only meets once a month, it's difficult to make progress on some types of issues. Although email between members helps, approval of actions, recommendations, etc, requires committee votes which can only be done in person at meetings scheduled well in advance.

  • The committee turns over frequently. Combined with a lack of ready access to historical notes, this means that the committee is frequently working in a kind of start-up mode with little knowledge of what came before.

  • As far as I can tell, the County Executive has ignored every committee recommendation ever made.
So What Are The Good Points?
  • Committee members get several hours each month of undivided attention from the Cable Office and the Council staffmember on telecomm affairs.

  • The committee can write opinions that presumably represent large numbers of citizens.

  • The Council pays attention to the committee and sometimes gives it an opportunity to speak during worksessions and meetings.
However, individual citizens can also get the same access just by showing up to the committee meetings. And County staff are generally willing to talk to citizens no matter who they might be. Furthermore, individuals can write opinions and present them to the county or the newspaper.

While on the committee, I sometimes found that it was impossible to get a consensus from the committee or that committee approval required watering down the opinion. For this reason, even while on the committee, I testified at hearings under my own name. Indeed, on several occasions, I authored the committee opinion as well as one of my own! Now that I'm off the committee, I have continued to personally testify at hearings. As far as I can tell, my testimony is appreciated. I know other people who testify personally who have never served officially - their testimony is also appreciated.

All That Said, I Still Attend Committee Meetings

Why do I attend despite obviously finding the committee itself a source of frustration?
  • First, I find Cable Administrator Jane Lawton's briefings invaluable. She is the expert in Montgomery County and is the center of action - she knows everyone and everything. Her office sits on a powder keg - between the Executive, the Council, the inspectors, the FCC, the franchisees, the citizens, and the media. Yes, I could go home and watch demolition derby. But it's more fun to see it all live - listening to her keep it all in check is just plain fun.

  • Second, I enjoy meeting and talking with other people who are interested in telecomm issues and trying to improve them in the county. I particularly like the current Chair (Shep Bostin, Geeks on Call) who appears to be trying really hard to make the committee productive and useful.

  • Finally, guests attend from a variety of organizations including Comcast, Starpower, and the PEG channels. Frequently these are high-level managers or VPs so it provides opportunities to lobby them for changes in their practices. In addition, the guests are usually welcome to provide status reports and I always enjoy them, particularly when they present their version of the facts.

    Nowadays, there is so much turnover, particular in Comcast, that it is simply fun to see who Comcast will send. For almost a year, Comcast couldn't find anyone at all to send. Or maybe they chose to send no one intentionally. With more resignations in the air, it will be fascinating to see what the company does next.
What - You're Still Interested?

Assuming I haven't completely turned you off to this idea, you can apply by emailing a cover letter and resume to The deadline is September 2.

One Last Bit Of Advice

As I mentioned earlier, the County Executive doesn't want to hear strong opinions while the County Council does. Because of this conflict, it's important to realize you have to temper your comments during the interview. Indeed, several well-qualified applicants have been rejected because they spoke TOO honestly. I am specifically referring to several applicants who had personally testified with sound advice at county hearings. But they were rejected. To the best of my knowledge, no one who has ever testified at a county hearing has been permitted to serve on the committee. (And all committee members who personally testified were also rejected upon re-application for subsequent terms.)

This is rather unfortunate and frankly, totally backwards. If you only appoint people who don't go to hearings on their own, why expect them to behave any differently just because they've been appointed to a volunteer position. Indeed, some people who are apppointed then don't even show up to meetings and drop the committee after 6 months. And some people attend but contribute nothing for the same reason that they never attending any county hearings in the first place on their own.

Bottom line: When interviewed, don't admit to ever having attended any hearings or submitted testimony (even in writing) or complaints to the cable office. Don't admit to knowing anyone else on the committee. Don't admit to reading this blog or, for that matter, the newspaper in general. Instead, when asked why you're applying, stick with generic platitudes and remarks about how important it is that citizens give something back to the county and willingly serve in volunteer positions.

Good luck.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Verizon Work On My Road Complete

Today, Verizon installers told me that tests on my street were successful and they finally moved the termination boxes on top of the pole where they belong. As far as they're concerned, they're done - but they still wouldn't commit to an actual date when I could call for service.

Verizon by the Numbers
0: Verizon door hangers warning me of work in progress
1: FIOS Hummer sightings on my street
4: times I've called to sign up for FIOS
9: months since Verizon first started digging on my street
16: flyers I've received telling me I should call immediately for FIOS service

Monday, August 01, 2005

Comcast Blasts Holes In Itself


One month ago, Comcast General Manager Craig Snedeker sent a letter to the County Executive asking for him to stop issuing permits to Verizon and order Verizon to stop all work on their FIOS project. Comcast stated that in Montgomery County alone, Verizon had cut over 400 Comcast lines. Snedeker wrote "in its haste to deploy its new network, Verizon is ignoring many basic safety and construction standards" and that "indicates a total reckless disregard for safety and property" and Verizon had caused service outages to thousands of Comcast subscribers throughout Maryland. Wow!

Verizon admitted that they were responsible for some cuts but much fewer than Comcast claimed. In addition, Verizon asserted that Comcast was to blame for some of the cuts and furthermore, Comcast technicians had been cutting Verizon lines!

The county declined to act on Comcast's request. The reasons why came out during the July 25 Quarterly review of the cable franchises. Here's what happened.

July 25th Quarterly Review Of Montgomery County Franchisees

Cable Administration Jane Lawton started out with a litany of requirements of which Comcast was out of compliance. For example, in April, Comcast performed 90% of all repairs within 24 hours. However, the franchise agreement requires they be at the 95% level. It would have been even worse except that Comcast hasn't provided the required statistics for the rest of the 2nd quarter (May and June). In fact, Comcast hasn't provided the required statistics for cable modem service since October '04 - when they were first required to do so.

It's not clear why Comcast believes it makes sense to withhold these statistics; nor can I fathom why the Council is putting up with their behavior. Comcast will lose in the end and it's just pissing off the Council. Eventually the Council will run out of patience and the county will fine the company.

In the meantime, it quickly became clear that the county and the Council are not on good speaking terms. Comcast sent Melody Khalatbari to defend their position. To many of the questions, Melody answered with (in essence) "I don't know." She didn't know the answer to privacy issues, staff issues, billing issues, or much of anything, nor did the other representatives that accompanied her. The Comcast General Manager chose not to attend. As the man brought in last year to fix all of their problems, this seemed like another slap in the face to the Council.

Complaints that are not resolved by Comcast can be registered with the County Cable Office. For the 1st quarter of '05, the Cable Office received 260 complaints, an increase of 10%. For the 2nd quarter, the Cable Office received the astounding number of 515 complaints, almost TRIPLE the number from last year.

While RCN's complaints have been going down, Comcast's have been climbing ever higher. In June, Comcast had 265 complaints (equal to the total number in their first quarter)! In July (actually, to July 22nd, just prior to the meeting), Comcast already had 326 complaints, and there were another 26 complaints the morning of the meeting!

So could this all be blamed on Verizon? No. But let there be no mistake. Verizon has caused a lot of damage to cable lines as well as electrical and gas lines. According to Comcast, the Washington Post (5/7/05) reported Verizon had cut into water mains 54 times in the past year. (Getting personal attention was Councilmember Knapp whose neighborhood had its electrical lines cut by Verizon. And since they are on well water with electric pumps, that means that even things like toilets became inoperable.)

So how can Verizon cause all this damage and yet not be responsible? Well, of course it is, but what's becoming very clear is that Comcast is responsible for a large amount of their own problems. For example, they don't mark their own lines reliably. When Verizon plans to dig in an area, they are required to contact MS Utility which in turn contacts the utilities and has them mark their lines. If Comcast doesn't mark their own lines or does so inaccurately, it should be no surprise when Verizon cuts Comcast's lines. Or when Comcast doesn't bury their lines deep enough, they can also be cut because they're not where they are expected. Evidentally, this happens a lot.

Furthmore, a lot of the complaints filed against Comcast have nothing to do with service cuts that could be blamed on Verizon. There are plenty of the usual complaints: untrained technicians, no service appointments available, missed appointments, incorrect bills, customers being hung up on. Four members of the public were allowed to describe individual complaints and it was apparent that all of them were the direct responsibility of Comcast. (The citizens were from Chevy Chase, Rockville, Potomac, and Silver Spring.) I personally testified - my testimony can be found in my previous blog entry.

After the public was allowed to testify, the council interrogated Comcast and the Comcast representatives repeatly came up short. Some other observations that came up:

Returned Phone Calls

Members of the public repeatedly complained about promises to return phone calls that were not kept by Comcast. Frankly, I'm used to this treatment. But even Cable Administrator Jane Lawton got in on the act. When the Adminstrator of the franchise can't get her phone calls returned regarding the public safety network (Fibernet), something is seriously wrong.

Comcast Refuses To Provide Info

As part of its franchise agreement, Comcast is required to provide certain information about its operation each quarter. Comcast is not providing all the information - particularly the information that the county uses to determine whether Comcast is in compliance. So instead of the county fining Comcast for being out of compliance of services specifications, the county will have to fine them for being out of compliance for not providing complete information. (Most notably, Comcast has not provided any cable modem statistics since they were first required to do so in October of '04.) What does Comcast expect to gain here?

More Outsourcing

Comcast observed that they were hiring more people and at the same time increasing outsourcing to two companies in Texas (Convergys) and Canada (Newcom). However under questioning, Comcast made no attempt to claim that these representatives understood that Montgomery County's had different requirements and procedures than other Comcast franchises. I've encountered this myself, for example, when requesting credits for outages. (The outsourced reps always give the wrong amount for video rebates.)

Complaints Closed Early

When a citizen complains to the county, Comcast has been deciding on their own when they've successfully dealt with the complaint. They don't call the customer to ask if their satisfied. Nor can the county always find out the disposition. In some cases, the customer gets a form letter and that's it.

Supervisors Are No Better

Yours truly pointed out that even the supervisors were lacking knowledge of rules and procedures. And they appeared to be treating customers no better than the front-line representatives.

Audit Requested

I also asked for a system-wide audit. Given my own complaints, I think there's good reason to believe I'm not the only customer given incorrect bills. Most people I speak to don't have the persistence to understand their bills. Even my colleagues at NIST (most of whom are highly skilled scientists) do not try to understand the bills. They just pay them. I find people paying more than they should. Multiply the estimated 220,000 customers times a couple of 99c discrepancies over 12 months produces an easy $2 million a year. Yes, an audit is appropriate!

Construction Violations

Comcast had 1500 construction violations in the 1st quarter of 2005, an increase of 16% from the previous quarter. In the 2nd quarter, Comcast had 1900 violations, an increase of 27%. Construction violations include things like safety issues such as ungrounded cables. Comcast was also noted for longstanding temporary cables (particularly in Avenel) and not burying cables deeply enough to prevent homeowners or landscapers from cutting through them.

Open Complaints

There were 361 complaints unresolved at the date of the meeting.

Abnormal Conditions

The percentages that I mentioned earlier (for example, 95%) is relative. Comcast removes data before computing those percentages that can be blamed on abnormal conditions, such as weather. So their own performance claims have to be read with a grain of salt.


For their previous quarters, Comcast paid fines of $4,650 and $900 in the 1st and 2nd quarters. Yep, that's it.

Frankly, I do not understand why the county is not fining Comcast over the lack of reporting. Oddly, the Council didn't follow up on this during questioning.


Councilmember Denis noted that Comcast is placing full page ads for marketing and sales personnel but none for technicians. Why is Comcast overselling their service? What happened to the business motto: Your current customers are your best customers.

Free Drops

The Cable Office noted a huge backlog in the "free" drops Comcast is obligated per the franchise to provide to libraries, schools, pools, etc. And in the last two months, Comcast has adopted a new policy - that it will no longer provide the county with for-pay installation work (such as cable sockets). Instead, the county will have to hire outside contractors.

Cable Advisory Committee

According to Shep Bostin, Chair of the county's citizen advisory committee for cable and telecommunications, most people in the county are not even aware that there is a county cable office to serve as an advocate on their behalf. Sounds right to me. Most people I know don't even realize that they are entitled to rebates for outages.

Comcast's Tech Training
According to Ray Ness, Comcast Technical Operations Director, training a technician consists of 8 weeks of class training followed by 2 weeks of "assisted" field training. Hmm.

Privacy Policy

Comcast's privacy policy has been an ongoing problem for years now. Councilmember Praiser observed that merely by paying one's bill, a customer is tacitly agreeing to have their customer records given to 3rd party companies for reasons unrelated to cable service. According to the county, the privacy policy violates certain federal laws and Comcast's unwillingness to let the County approve the policy violates the franchise. But for reasons unknown to me the county either can't or won't do anything about it. Rather the county would prefer a citizen step forward and sue Comcast.

Comcast's Response

What were Comcast's responses to these questions and criticisms?

It was short but sweet: 1) Ripple effects from the extra work caused by Verizon's cuts. 2) Weather. (Council member Andrews noted that he recalled Comcast using weather as an excuse at almost every quarterly review.) 3) Comcast's own technical work to enhance reliability.

To improve the situation, Melody said Comcast was doing the following:
  • Hiring more CAEs and trying to deploy them at peak times. Same for supervisors.
  • Listening in on a greater percentage of customer calls.
  • Outsourcing a great number of calls.
  • Increasing the hours of home visits from 8am-8pm to 7am-9pm
  • Changing from 3 hour windows to 2 hour windows.
  • Trying to arrange a course for cable techs at the local community college.
Melody also brought three people:

Jim Robinson, Acting Director of Customer Service
Kevin McNichol, Director of Engineering
Ray Ness, Technical Operations of the Regional Team

They were able to answer a few questions that Melody didn't know herself but all together not many questions were answered.

What Melody Didn't Know

As I mentioned earlier, Melody didn't have answers to most of the questions she got (even with her experts by her side). There were so many "I don't knows" that I decided to enumerate them here:
  • With respect to the four citizens, Melody didn't know the details.
  • Melody didn't know the date the May/June reporting would be delivered to the county.
  • Melody didn't know when the cable modem reporting would be delivered to the county.
  • Melody had no excuse for the abusive representatives.
  • Melody didn't know anything about representatives cancelling appointments without customer agreement.
  • Melody didn't know why salespeople were being recruited with heavy advertising with no comparable ads for techs.
  • Melody didn't know on what basis Comcast was closing cases of customer complaints or on what basis they were sending closure letters.
  • Melody didn't know why the Comcast representative for emergency Fibernet was not returning calls despite the 15 issues being raised at a joint meeting and being raised again with Comcast General Manager Snedeker. Melody had no knowledge of the 15 issues.
  • Melody didn't know why Comcast wasn't providing complete and accurate current construction maps, despite this being required by the franchise. She passed the question to Kevin McNichol who blamed it on software issues that were being worked out.
  • Melody did not know what percentage of customer calls were being outsource and how long this would continue
Melody did know that Comcast was helping the community such as by participating in Montgomery Youthworks and managed to squeeze such plugs in her replies. But this only helped to support Councilmember Andrews' point that the politicians had a difficult time treating Comcast objectively because it so frequently made contributions to various charities, funds, etc.

Bottom Line

I was quite surprised that the Comcast representative was unable to answer so many questions. I don't condemn her for this - she wasn't trying to be evasive, she just didn't know anything. Rather, the Comcast General Manager is clearly to blame. The buck stops with him and he wasn't around to defend his position regarding the Verizon complaint nor was he present to answer to all the other issues raised by the Council.

Comcast GM Craig Snedeker was brought in last year to fix all the problems in MC MD, yet there is little evidence of him doing so. Complaint levels are higher than ever (3x last year's!) and communication between the county and Comcast appears to be broken, much like the "walled garden" in which Comcast placed my cable modem a few weeks back for no reason at all.

Comcast is a powerful company with real strengths. Yet they appear to be throwing it all away. The blame-Verizon strategy isn't working. Comcast had a huge advantage as the de facto monopoly in MC. But if they keep running their system into the ground, it's hard to imagine why customers will continue to put up with their abusive service. If that recent Page 1 article in the Washington Post wasn't a wake-up call, I don't know what is.

One of the statistics Comcast won't divulge is the number of cable modem customers they have in MC. I don't know what the number is either but I'm pretty confident that, if Comcast continues their current strategy, a year from now that number is going to be a whole lot less.


One last note: RCN is now Starpower. Starpower is now RCN. Confused? RCN bought out the 50% stake of Starpower originally owned by Pepco. This buyout led to a fair amount of confusion by customers. That and rollouts of anti-spam software and improvements in hardware were given for the high number of complaints this year. (Should I pay my bill to another company?) Of course, "high" is a relative term. RCN's complaints increased from 13 during the same period last year to 16 this year however their rate went down in the 2nd quarter. Unfortunately, complaints as a percentage of total customers is proprietary, but clearly RCN has much fewer customers than Comcast.)

PS: "RCN" is the marketing brand name. "Starpower" is the legal name. Still confused? Sorry, that's the best I can do.

Monday, July 25, 2005

My Testimony to the MFP Committee

Montgomery County holds quarterly reviews of their two franchisees: Starpower and Comcast.

At today's review, the committee took an unusual step and opened the floor to the public. The committee was looking for people with personal experiences. Of course I was happy to oblige. Here is the testimony I presented:

July 25 '05 Testimony to the MFP Committee from Don Libes

My name is Don Libes. Thank you very much for allowing me to speak before you today.

In the last two months, I've filed 3 official complaints with the cable office regarding Comcast billing issues and 1 over a customer service issue. Plus I've experienced three outages in the last two months lengthy enough for me to call and request a rebate.

Now I understand that Comcast is pointing fingers at Verizon for having subcontractors who don't follow procedure and Verizon is pointing fingers at Comcast for not properly marking their lines.

But none of the outages I've experienced can be blamed on Verizon. Two of the outages were well outside Verizon's working hours and one was due to an internal error at Comcast. In the latter case I called up Comcast and heard this: "Your account needs to be rebuilt. Just give us a few hours." In fact, I had to call twice before my account was properly restored. No explanation as to how it broke in the first place.

Now I didn't file a complaint over that one. Here's an example of one in which I did file a complaint.

I received my bill three weeks ago. In addition to the normal charge, it had an additional 99c charge on it. I called to ask why and the representative said "That's our charge for handling a check." Needless to say I was surprised - I always pay by check. I told him it seemed strange to charge for it, and I hadn't gotten any notification, and so on and so forth. He said he couldn't explain why I had never been charged but I had to pay it. I asked that he waive the fee, at the very least just this once because I'd never received any prior notification. He said no, you have to pay it. Finally, I asked for a supervisor. She said the same thing. Yes, it's a check charge. You have to pay it. It's always been our policy to charge for checks.

Finally, after almost 30 minutes with these two, I convinced the supervisor to look yet again at my account and all of a sudden, "Oh wait a second, that is supposed a credit to your account for an outage. Someone must have entered it backwards. Oh, and you don't have to pay a charge for checks."

To summarize this interaction, the original representative screwed up the rebate (turning a credit into a charge), and the next representative and supervisor were ignorant of Comcast's fees and policies. And instead of starting out with the possibility that the customer might be right, they started out with the assumption that the customer had to be wrong, happy to make up bogus stories that sounded halfway plausible to make him go away so they wouldn't have to actually check the facts.

Clearly, Comcast representatives and supervisors are in need of proper training before being allowed to serve customers. Furthermore, the bills should be changed to avoid meaningless phrases like "adjustment" and redesigned so that the bills actually make sense and are comprehensible. I'm providing you with a copy of another bill of mine where my monthly rate doesn’t even appear and the bottom line on the back doesn't match that of the front - and it's simply impossible to know - without another 30 minute explanation from Comcast - the reason for the charges.

Most people do not have the dogged persistence and determination to make sense of their bills, no less question them and fix errors in them. They just give up and pay them. I think you should require that Comcast be audited to find all other customers who have been incorrectly charged for rebates in the last 12 months as well as several other problems that I've seen with their billing. This should be done on an annual basis until such time as Comcast can demonstrate it is no longer a problem.

Thank you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Dear Councilmembers: Support Bill 7-05

Here is the text of my June 14 testimony before the MC Council on Bill 7-05:

My name is Don Libes and I thank you for allowing me to speak today on behalf of Bill 7-05.

I strongly support this bill which will extend the life of the Cable Compliance Commission and provide consumer protection for cable customers.

Both cable video service and cable internet service are crucial to citizens in Montgomery County. Cable video service is required for PEG access. And cable modem service is the primary source of high-speed residential internet access, a service needed to telecommute, to reduce traffic, and to improve accessibility to business and education.

When your legislation originally established the Commission, Comcast was the dominant cable provider and generated numerous unresolvable complaints. Now the next largest provider of residential broadband, Verizon, is converting its regulated DSL service to unregulated FIOS.

As your own hearings have shown, Verizon FIOS is already generating complaints. Although the Cable Office is tracking some of them, the Cable Office lacks authority over certain types of problems. So the Commission is the final recourse citizens have to get relief. And that will remain so even when Verizon gets its video franchise here in Montgomery County.

Recall that during earlier hearings for the establishment of the commission, opponents of the legislation asserted that it was unnecessary, illegal, and so on. But in fact, the legislation has not been overturned and statistics show it is working for the community. Furthermore, it has not had a chilling effect on the providers. Just look at Verizon. Verizon selected Montgomery County as its first locality in all of Maryland in which to roll out FIOS. And Verizon representatives attended all of those hearings that led up to the commission. So they are well aware of and prepared to live with the existence of the commission.

Keep in mind the commission is not a problem to providers that offer quality service to all their customers. The commission is only needed when customers are not being satisfied and have nowhere else to turn. Statistics show that citizens are still depending on the commission. And we can expect this to be the case with Verizon as well.

Please do not let our cable providers off the hook. The number of cable users has increased since the commission was created. And the numbers are certain to grow especially with the rapid acceptance of video on demand, voice over IP, and other advanced technologies.

Cable remains an essential tool for Montgomery County citizens - even more so than when the commission was established a year and a half ago. The commission is an inexpensive yet effective way to provide consumer protection for cable customers. Please vote for Bill 7-05.

Thank you.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Extend the Life of the Cable Compliance Commission

As I wrote just three weeks ago, the county has an amazing track record for keeping citizens in the dark. This is proven yet again with the scheduling of a hearing on Bill 7-05 on June 14. I received notice of it only 5 days earlier! And I was at the most recent citizen advisory committee and it wasn't even mentioned. Yet somehow the county believes that citizens are encouraged to come and express their opinions on this bill!? What's wrong with this picture?

Bill 7-05

So what is Bill 7-05 and why should you be interested? Bill 7-05 extends the life of MC's Cable Compliance Commission. The public hearing on the bill is scheduled for June 14 at 1:30. The CCC has been a win for consumers and it would be a shame for it to go away. The council is listening. Please take this chance to express your opinions and support the CCC.

Note that Verizon's new fiber-based service (FIOS) also falls under the domain of the CCC.

If you would like to testify, please contact Delphine Harriston at 240-777-7931. You may also submit a statement by email:

Monday, May 23, 2005

Verizon Begins Formal Franchise Negotiations in Montgomery County

On Wednesday, May 18 2005, I attended the monthly meeting of the MC CCAC, the County's Citizen Advisory committee on telecomm issues. The meeting was relatively brief (in topics, not time) since we had a guest speaker and that left little time for anything else.

Comcast Deals

Comcast is offering a nice discount for its existing HSI customers. 12 months at $29.95/month. For customers who only have internet service (like me), that's a discount of almost 50% off the regular price of $57.95 - wow! Clearly, this is in response to Verizon's presence in the county. Isn't competition grand?

So how will Verizon deal with this? I'll get to that later. First ...

Verizon Starts Franchise Negotiation

Finally, the county has announced it has officially entered into negotiations with Verizon for a cable TV franchise. This was long expected but it represents a milestone for several reasons. First, it means competition in yet another way with Comcast and Starpower. Second it means more regulation for Verizon, regulation in a way that they've never had before, albeit with a new profit potential. Third, it is an encouraging sign that Verizon's fiber is here to stay.

In some ways, Verizon has made a very low key entrance causing people to wonder if their fiber solution will be here for the long term. However, it's clearly the way to go. Unlike other technologies, fiber has no limit to speeds or customer reach and it will open themselves up to higher profits as they are able to sell "advanced" services with higher profit potential. Speaking of low key, the Washington Post ran an article on FIOS ("FiOS Speeds Up Web, Phone and TV Access", 5/8/05) describing "The company has been quietly rolling out the network since least year, with next to no advertising... Verizon spokesperson Sharon Cohen-Hagar said last week that the company has not been trumpeting the service much beyond the neighborhoods where it is available, in the hopes of managing customer expectations."

"next to no advertising" must mean something different to different people. I was in Montgomery Mall in Bethesda last week and found that many of the tables in the common dining area had been refaced with huge FIOS graphics. How could you miss that! And, at my home, I've received a flyer every week for the past four weeks telling me service was now available and I should call. Alas, I have called, most recently last week and it's always the same: No, you cannot get service. Sorry - we're not responsible for our marketing department. We can't tell them to stop sending you flyers, sir.

Let's be mindful that most of the complaints about Comcast are about customer service (most about billing). Most people would think it's technical issues but it isn't. So Verizon has got to get their act together with how they deal with the customer, otherwise people are just going to write them off as just another big company that doesn't give a damn. The reason so many people have turned to satellite isn't so much because of Comcast's video quality but because of Comcast's customer service and price. But if Verizon treats the customer properly, they can do well despite Comcast's price specials.

Personally, I'm looking forward to Verizon higher speeds, especially the upload speeds. And I'm hoping that the reliability is better. But I think the general population wants better customer service. And that includes accurate information. This current stuff is a terrible sign - having web pages that don't work reliably, having web pages that insist you enter a phone number and won't accept an address, operators not putting you on a callback list when marketing has already contacted you, operators not offering evening hours which is when many people first see the postcards and for some people is the only time they can call, and giving out contradictory info. The postcards say that you don't need POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) but everyone I've spoken to who has successfully gotten service has POTS (or signed up for it to get FIOS), and Verizon is now saying that if you sign up with FIOS while having POTS, you can't drop the POTS. There also seems to be a question about retaining copper service if people are dissatisfied with FIOS. I know many people who don't want to give up their copper - at least initially - until they've been on the fiber for some time. But what Verizon appears to be saying is that once your phone is moved to fiber, it's never going back. Don't get me wrong - that doesn't bother me. But it does bother others - especially the older folks.

Verizon - hear this: You need to you get your customer service right. Otherwise, people won't see any reason to switch from Comcast even if they despise it already.

Franchise Negotiation

A few more comments about the franchise negotiation. Right now, the county lawyers are meeting with the Verizon lawyers. Verizon will probably ask to get parts of the franchise waived and the county will presumably refuse. This will drag on a while. Verizon also has to answer questions about their system and their finances. We'll likely see more jockeying over this - Comcast was outstanding at refusing to provide direct answers to questions about their finances - and this will further delay things.

Another kink is that no one (probably not even Verizon) is sure of what their video service will be. My understanding is that it will be quite unlike traditional cable and more like satellite - with the tuning done even further upstream - at a headend (meaning everyone will have to have a set-top box, sigh). So this opens up questions regarding basic service (the regulated tier) that we've never seen before and these questions need to be resolved.

The county has also learned its lesson with mistakes they made in previous franchises and may take this opportunity to correct these mistakes. The way this will work is that such improvements to the franchise will also have to be agreed by all the other franchisees. So this could delay things even more.

Further down the road, after the County Executive is satisfied, the Council will then hold hearings. (For reasons I've never understood, hearings by the Executive are optional.) And at that point, the public may weigh in and be ignored. Certainly, that was the case with the recent Comcast re-franchise. (People expressed excellent suggestions on how to improve the franchise but the Executive didn't take any of them.)

So how long is this going to take? Look for passage by the end of the year. Actual implementation is anyone's guess. I'm not aware of Verizon rolling out their video service anywhere at this point, even experimentally. Anyone know different?

Council Actions

The Council and Executive are having a terrible time trying to produce a budget. Part of this is driven by our exorbitant taxes and people finally complaining loudly enough for politicians to take notice. I don't claim to understand much of this but what I do understand is that the pols are playing lots of games with the money to make the numbers balance with the least amount of pain (or the most subterfuge). And by "least amount of pain", I mean for themselves. (Our taxes are still headed up.) Case in point: monies from cable franchise fees are not to be used for anything but cable-related projects in the county. However, "cable related" has become rather more loosely interpreted with each passing year. For example, this year the county has begun using cable funds for transcription services. The transcription services include closed captioning so I guess that the transcription was justified as cable-related on the basis that a small chunk of it was to be used on the PEG channels. Yet, traditional transcription service (the expensive part) doesn't go on any cable channel and has nothing to do with cable. Don't get me wrong - I think the transcription service is a great idea. But I don't think it should be paid out of cable fees.

A second type of subterfuge is the "borrowing" of franchise fees by the county for general appropriations. The county did this two years ago and is doing it again this year, this time to the tune of $500K. They are obligated to pay it back. Or are they? Like the Social Security lockbox, I doubt we will ever see that money again. At the same time, the money borrowed means that expenditures out of the cable fund will not occur. The 500K would have paid for fiber connections to the county's middle schools. So sorry, kids.

Somewhat off topic but still speaking of council actions, did anyone catch the Council's move to strip Executive Duncan of his power to distribute millions of dollars in grants to arts organizations? Duncan has reaped thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to the very same groups that he's been giving funding to! For example, Duncan's budget called for $500,000 in funding to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra but according to the Washington Post, members of the BSO board have contributed at least $12,000! Clearly, the council didn't like this behavior so they have designated the county's Arts and Humanities Council, a private nonprofit, to allocate arts grants for the next fiscal year. (They also lowered Duncan's requested $6.9M budget for the arts to about $5M.)

Cable Office Notes

Jane Lawton, Cable Office Administrator for MC presented the latest statistics on complaints. In short, complaints about Comcast are up significantly - roughly 50% more complaints in April than in March. Jane was unclear as to what's going on - I got the impression it simply wasn't clear to the Cable Office but they are diligent watchers of Comcast and will report back in a month.

Jane also reported that inspectors went out to re-inspect problems that the County had previously warned about, that the problems still weren't corrected despite Comcast's assertions that they were. This has been a problem in past years and the county has actually fined Comcast over it. But it sounded like the County wasn't going to issue another fine just yet.

Jane mentioned her interest in the LA's new customer service bill of rights. This is something I've been meaning to look into myself. Marilyn Praisner has started the ball rolling to re-authorize the legislation for the Cable Compliance Commission so it makes sense that the Council will be able to take input based on LA's law in the re-authorization process.

Councilmember Marilyn Praisner

Councilmember Marilyn Praisner is an important ally in cable consumer protection and she paid the committee a visit during its meeting. In fact, she spoke for over an hour, talking about her ideas and encouraging the CCAC to continue its good work. As she observed, "Local governments don't have the time, budget and manpower to take on the industry. It is only with citizen help that we even stand a change."

She talked about an extremely broad span of topics, from Strathmore to RCN locking up more Nats games. But most of what she said was old news - I've mentioned it in various forms in this and previous blog entries - so I won't bore you with more of it. One new item though is that Marilyn is interested in VoIP and wants to have a forum, specifically on E911 issues. This is certainly a topic dear to me, as I recently tested my own VoIP-based E911. This topic is also timely because the FCC is also in the process of trying to come to terms with whether or not it should regulate E911. Alas, the Congress looks like it's going to force the issue down our throats, a position in which I'm not at all in agreement. Prepare yourself for new taxes!

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Stay Informed

You may frequently hear me complain about the lack of timely notification from the local government regarding ...oh, just about anything. During my tenure on the CCAC, it was a frequent occurrence to hear that public opinion was solicited in only a week or two. Needless to say, we missed most of these deadlines. It was simply impossible to get a committee to agree on a position AND agree on its wording in such a short amount of time. Equally irritating was the lack of ability to inform the general public in a timely way.

As an example, when the County Executive proposed his regulations on cable modem service, the Executive's own advisory committee was only informed of the public hearing 10 days before the hearing. This despite it having been scheduled 30 days earlier! And despite it being of obvious interest - to the body which originally motivated its existence! Not surprisingly, there were no members of the community giving testimony except the ones ones that we (or the cable companies) informed ourselves.

So why doesn't the County Executive or the Cable Office do a better job of informing the citizenry? After all, the county has email lists for all sorts of things. For example, I'm on an official county mailing list that tells me when my weekly garbage pickup is delayed! But none for keeping citizens aware about telecomm issues?

When I served on the advisory committee, I went so far as to create a yahoogroup for the purpose. I even got some county officials to agree to be on it. But not long after, I was told that it couldn't be an 'official' forum and that the 'CCAC' had to be removed from its name. And the officials got the word and refused to post to it. Instead, we were told that the county would provide a mailing list that would run on the county servers so they could be in complete control. Well ok, maybe it would be worth giving up the discussion aspect if we could only get timely announcements. But the county never delivered on such a mail list despite our repeated requests.

So how does one stay informed on telecomm issues in Montgomery County? Alas, there is no one best way. Even this blog is not comprehensive (sorry). But I'm trying to help. And as part of that, here are some tips on how to stay informed:
  1. Read broadbandreports. It's one of several places that has forums where people can ask questions and get answers. Unfortunately, it's not well organized (the old "trying to drink from a fire hydrant" analogy comes to mind). Specifically, it lacks any way to just learn things specific to Montgomery County (including relevant national events). But it is nonetheless invaluable for what it does provide.

  2. The Montgomery County Register is a publication that lists many of the significant government actions that the MC Executive. The example I gave earlier regarding the cable modem regulations were listed in the Register and nowhere else. So I consider it essential to be on their mail list. It is available electronically but so ineptly (only part of it, no automated procedure for being notified of updates, and is a month behind) that getting it physically is the only sensible option even though it means you have to physically wade through the booklet every month. To be placed on the mailing list for the MC Register, call the Office Services Coordinator at 240 777-2537. Or write to Executive Regulation Process Manager, office of the County Executive, Executive Office Building, 2nd floor, 101 Monroe St, Rockville, MD 20850 with your name, address, and telephone numbers (home and work).

  3. The Montgomery County Council has an electronic notification service to receive emails about Council agenda and other material. Alas, it doesn't appear to include most of the things that it should include but hopefully my complaints to them about it will pay off eventually.

    I wish I could supply direct links to the various MC web pages but the URLs are clearly not meant to be published. They are machine generated and could change at any time . Thus, I recommend you start at the top of their website and navigate to what you need. For example, to get to the council's e-subscription service, start at and click on County Council, and then look for the e-subscriptions link. For the Register, the only way I've found to get that is by entering Register in the search box. There's no direct link to it.

  4. Some of the County's hearings are televised and archived. Unlike the earlier links, there is a short link for this however it's too tricky to navigate too (in fact, I tried today and couldn't find it! So I emailed the county webmaster for the link. Here it is:
  5. By the way, later this year, the video service will include transcriptions. For now, you have to make them yourself.
  6. The council agendas are made available electronically a week or so before each hearing. You can find this linked from the council web page (ok, I did come up with an official shortcut for the council page). Click on the links labeled with background material and you'll get the briefing notes and other material that the council staff prepare for the council members.

  7. I wasn't intending to provide links other than MC but I will pass on a link for Verizon that I think few people know about and might otherwise be hard to find. If you go to their regular link, you'll get the usual stuff including a page that allows you to check for availability by entering your phone number. However, it doesn't work for people who don't have Verizon phone service. For that you can check by address - but not by any form that's easily findable. The solution is this page: Alternatively, you can call 888-438-3467 and ask.