Saturday, April 23, 2005

MC CCAC April '05 Meeting Highlights

The report from the April CCAC meeting will be blissfully brief. Most of the meeting was spent on organizational matters. New members were briefed on the old organization and a new organization and topics were discussed. In short, the CCAC discusses whatever it feels like discussing. If you want it to tackle something it is ignoring, speak to the members - or better yet, get yourself on the committee. It's generally not hard - people drop off and openings appear regularly although one of the recommendations before the council is to lower the number of members to 15. The current limit is 19 but for practical reasons (people are always dropping off and it takes 4-6 months to get new members appointed), the actual number is always less. So if the limit is lowered to 15, that probably means there will only be about 10 members. (Less if you count the ones who actually do anything.)

Comcast representation at the meeting was small. Tasha Tibbs, Comcast Public Affairs Assistant, was attending her first meeting. I asked her if a replacement had been found for all the recent losses (see previous blog) but she said no. I don't know who is doing all the work that Ellen Bogage and Lori Sherwood did but Tasha made it clear it wasn't her.

Lonni Moffett, representing Takoma Park, made a presentation on Takoma Park's use of the PEGs.

Margie Williams, MC Cable Office Program Manager, reported that one of the staff in the cable office had successfully started getting Verizon FIOS and reported that it was "twice as fast" and "the service is great."

Kernan Chaisson's report on the April 11 MFP's worksession on the Verizon Damage Control Team was essentially the same as what I reported here last week. Except that he used nastier words than I did. Or something like that. Kernan wasn't present so he had given his report in writing to the Chair. The Chair began reading it to the committee but actually stopped in the middle and refused to read a section of it explaining that the language that Kernan had used to describe the proceedings was just too inappropriate for him to say aloud.

Gosh, why don't I write that way?


Jane Lawton, MC Cable Office Administrator, reported that Comcast had appealed the County's rejections of the rate requests including the FCC 1235 (network upgrade costs) and FCC 1205 (regulated equipment and installation costs). So, unless someone backs down, both will be sent to the FCC for them to make the decision. The FCC 1240 (max regulated service rates) is still being discussed by the county and Comcast.

Jane reported that the county is looking into E911, in part because of numerous citizens calling the 911 centers to test VoIP connections. (See my report on testing E911.) The county believes that it can come up with a more efficient mechanism by working directly with the VoIP providers and MC's 911 call center. Makes sense to me.

Jane also noted that NATOA (National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors) is meeting here in the DC area this September. NATOA is the forum through which Cable Administrators such as Jane swap experiences in forums, explore new techniques, and generally learn how to do their job better by listening to their peers. Jane suggested that she might be able to get some passes for CCAC members to attend. The one thing I dislike about NATOA is that they don't make their publications readily available to the public. I think that's extremely shortsighted but it's probably more concerned with profit than advocacy. Oh well. Attending a NATOA conference sounds like a great opportunity. If nothing else, perhaps this opportunity could spur someone reading this blog to apply to serve on the CCAC!

Jane also reported that the MFP committee approved the Executive's proposed Cable Plan budget but only after increasing the budget. That's a little startling to hear after reading so much in the newspaper about the Council cutting the county budget overall. However, the Cable Plan has its own funding so it can afford the increase. Of course, it's ironic that the council's ability to budget more in cable franchise fees may only exist because the council isn't allowing other taxes to rise as much. So what does this increased budget buy? Another staff member for better web pages, streaming, legal fees, and transcripting. I think this is a good thing - money well spent. The Cable Office has an arduous task and does a helluva job. They've taken on a lot more recently and now, there's Verizon to contend with. The Cable Office staff deserves a budget for rubdowns and aspirin by the pallet.

Cable Compliance Commissions

Finally, the Cable Compliance Commission (CCC) is nearing the end of its life - the legislation that created it contained a sunset clause - and Councilmember Marilyn Praisner has introduced a bill to extend the life of the CCC. I wouldn't mind a few changes in the legislation but the overall idea is sound and it should be extended, particularly now that Verizon has entered the picture. I encourage you to support this bill as well as Councilmember Praisner and Andrews who were instrumental in the creation of the commission in the first place.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Verizon Damage Control

I attended a fascinating meeting on April 11 '05 of the Montgomery County MFP committee. Normally, the MFP committee meets quarterly to review the performance of our two cable franchises (Comcast and Starpower), but they've been getting enough complaints that they felt obliged to hold a hearing on the Verizon construction project, a focus of several earlier of my own blog entries.

It was a packed house - the council hearing room was jammed. Despite the intense interest, the meeting was not broadcast (even though the room is permanently wired for easy broadcasting). Attendees including:

- County Council members on the MFP committee: Praisner, Andrews, Denis, and Knapp (plus several staff members)
- MD Public Service Commission: J. Schaeffer
- MC Cable Administrator Jane Lawton (plus staff)
- Rockville Television and Telecomunications Manager Doug Breisch (and staff)
- CCAC member Kernan Chaisson
- CTC inspector Bob Hunnicutt
- numerous Verizon representatives including notably the Verizon Damage Control Team

I didn't get all the precise titles of the Verizon representatives; they reeled them off too quickly for me but it went something like this:
Donald Heath, Director of Verizon FIOS project (MD & DC)
Mike Hoover, Director of FIOS Construction (MD & DC)
Jim Schumaker, Engineer in charge of FIOS Construction and Installation (MD & DC)
Nelson Smead, Damage Control (MD)
Ken Rupert, Local Manager, Damage Control (MD)

Verizon began a prepared presentation, leading off with some statistics (e.g., "passed 100K households to date") which sounded great but in actuality were vague and ultimately meaningless, so I'm not even going to bother repeating most of their other statistics. Management loves this stuff. I don't.

Some of these titles seemed fluid. At times, it was "Damage Control Team", then "Damage Control & Compliance Team", then "Damage Prevention Team". This characterized Verizon's approach as well - ever changing. They described how the project encountered problems, which they blamed on a variety of factors stemming from the aggressive roll-out leading to hiring contractors which in turn subcontracted to companies out-of-state and inexperience with local requirements. The beginning of Verizon's problems was how they went about hiring contractors, seemingly without questioning "Aren't contractors only supposed to contract for skills they know how to do?" Obviously, not.

While the project started around Oct-Nov '04, it generated enough complaints from WSSC, Washington Gas, Pepco, and Comcast, that Verizon felt obligated to start their own training program in January '05. Verizon seemed particularly proud for offering their training in Spanish as well as English. Indeed, a common complaint received by the MC Cable Office was an inability for residents to communicate with the contractors on their property. Maybe it's politically incorrect, but I'd prefer Verizon use ESL instruction instead. That way, the residents can communicate plus the contractors are working from one set of specs rather than two that may not match.

Verizon described a complex arrangement they had with their contractors which seemed rather unfortunate. Although they were proud of the structure and their policies (such as "all subcontractors must report directly to one of the prime contractors"), it seemed clear that Verizon wanted to insulate themselves from responsibility for problems caused by their contractors. And Verizon certainly didn't want to hear any complaints. Basically what Verizon's policy came down to was: "In the event of problems, don't call us, call our contractors."

Indeed, door hangers left at homes gave residents the phone numbers to the contractors, not Verizon. Not even Verizon's Damage Control Team. And although Verizon gave the phone number of their Damage Control Team's Hotline to the county council, Verizon requested that the number not be distributed to the public. I give up - what's the point of having a "hotline" that can only be reached by the time-consuming process of complaining to a county council member? Do citizens even know this? Of course not.

One of the slides Verizon used, showed the number of cuts and other problems starting small and declining. (At least I think that was what those charts were trying to show - they didn't leave it up for very long.) Well gosh, after revealing such a philosophy over problem reporting ("If we don't hear about it, it's not a problem."), how can those numbers possibly be believed? After the meeting was over and a few of us were chatting in the hallway outside, we asked for a copy of the slides. But Verizon refused to make the numbers available and we stood there while one of the project directors ripped out - page by page - all the questionable data that they had just shown to the council - before handing it over to us.

Rather than follow up on the questionable figures, instead the Council obsessed about the door hangers. I believe every one of the council members perked up with questions about the door hangers. We were even treated to a lecture by one council member (whose name I withhold to protect him from further embarrassment) that some doors don't have door handles and another half-dozen excuses why Verizon couldn't be blamed for not leaving door hangers.

The council also failed to follow up on MC Cable Administrator Jane Lawton's observations - that Verizon's claim that untrained contractors were a natural consequence of an aggressive rollout was self-serving BS. Ok, she didn't say "self-serving BS" but clearly it was. Jane also pointed out serious safety related problems (unmarked open trenches, unsafe equipment in roadway, etc). This was all in the CTC report, but from the Council's questions, it wasn't apparent they had read it. If they had, they would've asked questions relating to the specifics of the reports.

Verizon still isn't done developing new policies. For instance, a recent idea of theirs is to provide contractors with ID cards. What took them so long to think of this? But don't stop any workers today - the cards have not been distributed yet.

A representative of the Maryland PSC spoke about Miss Utility (the process by which the ground is marked so that digging doesn't accidently cut other utilities) and various failures related to that. For example, he described how the fine per violation is only $1000. In addition, it's very hard and expensive to investigate such violations. However, the PSC doesn't have enforcement powers. That falls to the MD Attorney General. And the MD AG has shown no interest in pursuing such investigations. It is ironic that one of the reasons they're not interested is that there are too many of these cases!

The council didn't appear to express anything about enforcement either. It's not clear that they even have any enforcement powers. It is very unclear who has authority over Verizon now although when they sign the cable franchise, the county will definitely have more power. In the meantime, the Cable Office is accepting complaints just as they do for current franchisees. So far, they have received 25 complaints from citizens about Verizon. The county's telecomm inspectors (CTC) also followed up on some of this based on their exam of 44 construction sites. CTC's report can be found in the previous entry to this blog.

There was a lot of fingerpointing but there was very little to back it up. Even the CTC inspection reports were questionable - in only a few cases did the CTC inspectors directly witness or get admissions from the Verizon installers of problems they had caused. In the other 90% of the cases, it was merely alleged - no proof. Was a Comcast temporary drop laying across the road for 2 weeks really Verizon's problem? Or was it just Comcast being Comcast?

And Verizon went ahead and denied a lot. The council reported that Comcast had reported 200 cuts. Verizon's response:
- Our figures disagree - much lower.
- We don't know where they're getting those numbers from.
- They won't give us the affected addresses.
- They won't meet with us.
- They are not to be believed.

Ok, Verizon didn't say that last thing but it was certainly implied. But Comcast representatives did not attend the meeting so there was no reason not to be believe Verizon's assertions. Since Comcast didn't show, obviously isn't being helpful, and has a vested interest in being unhelpful, it was really hard to beat up on Verizon much. And in the end, the council members didn't. They weren't intimidating. They didn't extract any promises or talk penalties. The MD PSC representative bitched and moaned but in the end, it just sounded like a lot of whining because he didn't have any way to control Verizon either (for the reasons mentioned earlier).

The council also didn't pursue Verizon's schedule. The closest they got was when one asked what percentage of MC, Verizon planned to reach. The answer: we can't talk about that. They did offer a URL that we could use to check for updates. However, as far as I can see, it has nothing about schedules.

In fact, standing outside the room afterward, I learned more listening to a citizen ask the Verizon lawyer questions point blank. We also spoke to the Rockville representatives before the meeting and were able to get more detail. In comparison, the council spent no more than a minute looking into the Rockville issue. In short, Rockville has enough concerns over the FIOS construction that they are insisting on insurance and construction bonds. (Why didn't the county have these same concerns?) So far Verizon has refused Rockville's requests with the result that there has been no fiber going into Rockville. And this not only affects people who live in the city but also people who are served by the Rockville COs but live elsewhere.) But Doug Breisch, the Rockville representative, says that he expects that Verizon will come around. However, at best, it's hard to believe that Rockville will get FIOS before 2006.

Verizon refused to talk about future schedules. Instead, Verizon tried to snow everyone with meaningless facts and figures. For instance, they proudly stated that they've laid about 1.5 million feet of fiber in MC. But when asked what percentage of Montgomery County homes that passed... "That's proprietary."

Ironically, after the meeting, I went home and found a card in my mailbox telling me that FIOS was now available to me and that I should contact Verizon. Of course, I called immediately: "Thank you for calling Verizon. We're are presently closed. Please call back ..."

So then I figured, ok, I'll try the Verizon FIOS web page: "Online ordering is currently unavailable. We are unable to check Fios availability and process orders due to a system error."

Not a very auspicious start!

On the other hand, I did have to have to work around Comcast's once-again failing DNS servers in order to get to the Verizon web page. All the more incentive.

It's been about a week now and several people have told me that it appears Verizon isn't rolling out service to people without existing Verizon phone service. Indeed, when you call FIOS Sales, the first thing they do is ask for your phone number. However, the card I got specifically said Verizon does offer FIOS even without phone service. One of my colleagues told me he was so desperate that he signed up for Verizon phone service on the spot. Other people have reported that once signing up for FIOS, you cannot drop your phone service! So Verizon has got you either way.

The FIOS web page also requires a phone number. However, someone pointed out to me an unadvertised FIOS web page that accepts a street address. However it didn't work for me. Another "system error".

Subsequently, I called the FIOS number during the day. The FIOS representative asked for my phone number and seemed confused when I told her I didn't have wired phone service. After some discussion, she finally asked for my address and then told me that I was not eligible for FIOS. I pointed out to her that I had gotten the card which seemed to indicate otherwise. And there really is newly-laid fiber running in front of my house. She suggested I call back in 30 days as her records showed the CO was operational and houses in the area were receiving FIOS service. Seems rather silly that they can't call me when they're ready but she said they don't work that way. In any case, I have no confidence that it makes sense for me to call back every 30 days.

Why is Verizon starting off by annoying their (potential) customers? Insisting on phone service. Telling people to call only to find out they can't deliver. To call repeatedly. And such limited hours to contact sales. What is going on over there?

Saturday, April 09, 2005

MC CCAC March '05 Meeting Highlights, Part 2

As promised, here is part 2 of the CCAC meeting highlights. See the previous blog entry if you missed part 1.

Verizon Starts Video Ball Rolling

Jane Lawton, MC Cable Administrator, finally gave the word - Verizon has officially approached the county to begin negotation for providing video service. There should be no question now - Verizon will seek a "cable" franchise in order to provide service in the county. This despite the existence of the unique Cable Commission and cable laws that exist in the county - which Comcast once claimed were illegal.

The 18 (or so, not sure of the exact number of) municipalities within MC will likely let the county negotiate for all of them together. Or almost all of them. Gaithersburg appears to want to negotiate on its own. Four have already indicated that the way the county to negotiate for them. This is similar to the way the Comcast and Starpower franchises were handled. If you look at the Comcast franchise, you'll see the last 10 or so pages are just filled with signatures of the officials representing the other municipalities.

Comcast Raises Rates (Or Tries To Anyway)

At the same time, Comcast is continuing to try and raise rates. I won't bore you with the details, but Comcast is trying to raise rates in a variety of ways.

1) The rates for basic service are regulated by the county and can only go up once a year. We should hear the final MPR (max permitted rate) by 3/31/05.

2) Comcast is also attempting to get a new regulated fee charged to customers - assessing customers for the network upgrade several years ago. This is rather peculiar as they asked for the privilege of charging customers $2.42/mo for 12 years in order to earn $80 million. So their rates for premium service are not bringing in enough dough?? Hmm. Why not just raise their unregulated premium rates? I suspect because it's easier to blame the FCC when the line on the bill says "regulated rate" on it even though Comcast gets the additional money.

The MC Cable Office has been aggressively battling this and knocked down Comcast's $2.42/mo to 19c/mo. (Thank you Jane!) Of course, Comcast can appeal this to the FCC so 19c may not be the last word. Frankly, I got the impression that Jane was quite annoyed not to reduce the charge to zero.

3) Comcast is also resetting the rates for equipment & installation. These are also regulated rates and have to be approved by the FCC (well, sort of). And Comcast, for the first time, is asking for a national rate. That's probably good for MC. Labor is expensive here so by sticking to a national rate, it might actually hold down our rates what they might otherwise rise to - although it means other parts of the country are going to really get hit hard. Or maybe we all will. We'll find out soon enough.

Some of the paperwork supporting these requests is available online. The Rockville Library has this plus additional material. You can't check it out - you can only read it there or copy it at 15c/page, sigh. The MPR request (see (1) above) alone is 106 pages!

Have fun reviewing the filings. I haven't gone through them yet myself but you can expect the Comcast submissions to reveal a number of creative accounting principles. That was my experience in reading their submissions the last time around. In a future blog entry, I'll cover examples of how Comcast (and probably other cable companies) do this.

Conflict Of Interest

The Cable Office is always horrified to hear me say this but they have to deal with a conflict of interest on a regular basis. Specifically, their funding comes entirely out of franchise fees. So it is in the county's interest to increase franchise fees but at the same time, it is in the county's interest to reduce the amount that subscribers pay for their service.

That's just the tip of the iceberg - one that I'm not going to delve further into at this time. However, it bears mentioning before I state the current amount that the county expects to collect in franchise fees this year (2005): $8,452,000. That's some serious cabbage! In fact, last year the county "borrowed" a healthy amount of it to help balance the rest of the county budget. (Do the words "Social Security lockbox" ring a bell?) I'd be surprised if this ever gets paid back.

Interestingly, that $8+ milllion dollar figure was well above what the county originally projected. Last year the county predicted that franchise fees would go DOWN, probably due to increased penetration by satellite. I don't have the figures so I can only conjecture, but I suspect that Comcast's internet service has staved off the loss of many subscribers that would've otherwise walked. In addition, the increasing sales of premium channels and higher costs of digital and HD services have increased Comcast's revenue despite the overall number of TV subscribers remaining relatively constant.

I don't know what Comcast is predicting but the County is planning for increased franchise income of $220K/year that amounts to overall growth of roughly 2.5% per year for the foreseeable future. That must be disappointing to Comcast.

Strathmore - Good news and Bad News - Which do you want to hear first?

Good news

Strathmore is now online. As part of the county's longstanding project to bring most of its facilities online with highspeed connections, Strathmore now has their own fiber drop.

Bad News

The fiber to Strathmore was, of course, paid for by taxpayers (or more specifically, the franchise fees of cable customers). But that's not the news. (Well, it's not the new news.) The new news is that Strathmore is not streaming their productions over any of the PEG channels for the community to enjoy. Ok, I could see that streaming in real-time might undercut ticket sales. However it is my understanding that Strathmore is not going to be releasing their productions after the fact, either. So if you can't afford tickets, you can forget about those wonderful Strathmore productions. Ok, I give up. Why did we pay to give them a fiber connection at all if they're not using it?

PS: Originally budgeted at $68 million, Strathmore came in at roughly $100 million (how can you have a project go 47% over budget??) plus the center is selling naming rights for the music center for $15 million, the concert hall for $10 million and the education center for $5 million (I can see it now - The Comcast Center for Excellence in Education at Strathmore) so it evidently really cost another $20 million that we were never told about. More disinformation: Strathmore claims to be self-supporting but that doesn't include $1 mil in operating expenses that county taxpayers pay annually.)

And did you know that MC has been named as a co-defendent in a lawsuit by a contractor for nonpayment of work done on Strathmore. Damages sought: $724K. And a 2nd company is preparing to file suit for $1M for nonpayment. (If a judge ruled for the plaintiffs, it would allow them to take possession of the property if not paid.) Evidentally, MC really has yet to make final payments, roughly about $10M. I don't fully understand why but it has something to do with MC failing to obtain a performance bond like they should have. Here's a link for more info.

Anyway, if you think that's bad, wait til we start paying for the ICC. Then we'll talk pain! Oh wait, we'll just sell naming rights ...

Meeting Transcripts

Some really good news - to me anyway. In the past, attending county meetings has been rather challenging. Not just to get to the meetings but to get transcripts. The county is taking some giant step forwards. All videos of the council will now be saved for one year (I think it used to be a month) and they will all be transcripted. The transcripts will not only contain all the words spoken but will identify the speaker. This is obviously a manual process and because of that (or maybe because we weren't willing to pay even more), there will be an 8-day delay between the meetings and the transcripts. But even with the delay, transcripts are a wonderful thing. I used to have to click play/rewind dozens of times to get the complete sentence that was spoken. It was painful. I'm so happy that the county is doing this.

Look forward to lots of quotes of councilmembers. You cannot believe how childish the proceedings can be at times.

There is also a proposal to tape and broadcast the CCAC meetings. I hope this comes to pass as it would shine even more light on telecommunication issues in the county. Indeed, I don't report on parts of the meetings that I don't find particularly interesting. For example, in the last meeting, Jane spent a fair amount of time reviewing some issues having to do with telecommunications towers in the county. Fascinating stories (well, ok she does make them interesting) but not the subject of this blog.

Oh, one more tidbit that Jane did mention - Comcast asked her to review their newest Privacy Policy. She found that it included the same language that her office had rejected last year - so the Cable Office rejected it again! Jane mentioned that Seattle had passed actual privacy legistlation that reflected their understand of federal law that governs local companies. If you want to hear more about this, see the video. Oh wait, there is no video yet. See? If you want the CCAC meetings to be recorded, contact your council member with some encouraging words.


April 11 at 2:15pm - As I mentioned in Part 1, the MFP committee of the MC Council will review the problems associated with Verizon's FIOS construction. The package is already available at the council website. These meetings are generally not streamed (although they are taped but you have to pay for copies). See you there?

April 19 at 2:30pm - The MFP committee will meet to discuss the cable fund as part of the annual county budgeting approval process.

April 20 at 7:30pm - The CCAC will hold its regular monthly meeting.