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. www.verizon.com/maryland. 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?


Anonymous said...

I got Verizon Fios in Silver Spring about 6 mos. ago. I also managed to get it and drop my landline phone service at the same time. I now have Packet8 (not verizon) and Verizon Fios 15/2. I recommend you use my tactics:
put everything in writing and mail it to your Verizon sales rep and to the State of Maryland Consumer Affairs. I did this and I later got my bill adjusted to what was promised PLUS they had to honor my 'naked' Fios service, as promised.

sunshineprofe said...
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