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.