Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Avoid Free Email

Christmas is over. I can go back to delivering uncheery news. Here goes.

Montgomery County's cable franchisees provide customers with "free" email and "free" email addresses. Great! Or is it? Let's look at these two offerings one at a time.

Free Email Addresses

By "free" email addresses, I mean addresses such as or The domain names ( and show they are provided by a franchisee. I strongly recommend avoiding such addresses for your own use. These addresses tie you to the franchisee so that if you decide to change from one (oh let's say for example, Comcast) to another (gosh, let's say Verizon), you have a huge problem in front of you. There's no easy way to get all of your friends, colleagues, and family to use your new email. It's a hassle for you and it's a hassle for them. And you're probably on lots of email lists, too. Providers cannot be depended on to forward email after you close your account and get a new email address. So any mail that goes to the old address is lost to you.

Even worse are all the services that do authentication by reachability: You're authenticated if and only if you can receive email at the address you used when you originally signed up. I've got oodles of such accounts. There's no way to easily update all of these accounts. Apart from the number of them, some of the services using this technique make it very tricky to change email addresses.

I am particularly surprised when I see people using such addresses as part of their business. That's just asking for trouble - and having to reprint business cards or letterhead is the least of the problems. All the places on the web that have that old email address are essentially set in stone. There's just no way to get all the search engines on the web to give up a pointer to an old email address. If, for example, your business as a dance teacher received a favorable mention in the Gazette, it will be impossible to get the Gazette to change their archives to reflect your new address.

I know a lot of people switching from Comcast to Verizon and this is exactly the pain that they are going through. (And perhaps they'll be going through the opposite problem next year.) And this is why companies like AOL, offering an otherwise uncompetitive service, have been able to keep customers as long as they have. Because they own the email addresses that so many people have used for years are loath to give up. AOL recently recanted on this policy - AOL now allows non-customers to have AOL addresses - in an effort to stem the loss of customers by the millions - so ex-customers can keep their old AOL email addresses.

Even if you're happy with your provider or just decide it's easier not to switch to avoid such problems, you could still run into the same problems. For instance, cable companies go out of business or get bought out. Even Comcast - which has been stable here in Montgomery County, MD - has a record of switching domains. Comcast has bought several other franchises (e.g., Adelphia, Telemedia), forcing those users to switch to a mail address. And Comcast has sold or traded franchises in other areas (e.g., Time-Warner), with users having to give up their mail addresses. Such a scenario could definitely happen here.

Even without these franchise swaps, email addresses can be taken back by the provider. A number of reasons are plausible - from claims about spamming to demands by other users who happen to have clout. Bottom line: You don't own these mail addresses. (The provider does.) You don't even rent them. (They're "free," remember?) There is nothing in the terms-of-service (e.g., Comcast TOS) preventing you from losing your email address.

The Solution

Buy an email address thereby giving you control over it. It doesn't take very much money to buy a domain with lots of email addresses. For example, google, yahoo, and godaddy offer domains from $10 or less a year. Some, such as include an unlimited number of email addresses. There are many other providers that offer similar service and rates. (If you know of better deals with quality providers, please post them.)

Recognize that these email addresses are forwarding addresses. You can advertise your personalized email address but the email gets forwarded to some other service. So people may email me at but that is just a forwarding address that sends mail on to my mail provider - which might be Yahoo mail, Gmail, or some other provider (see below). If your mail provider, say, Google, takes back your account or you depart, say, Comcast, you can simply get a new account somewhere else and redirect your forwarding address to it. Note that I'm not recommending Google or Yahoo for mail; I'm just using them as examples here.

Having your own domain for mail forwarding is excellent and inexpensive but it's only half of the solution. Now the other half...

Free Email

A counterpart to free addresses is the free email offered by providers. By email, I mean the actual process of sending mail, receiving mail, and storing mail. Some providers also provide other services - such as spam filtering.

Can you guess what I'm going to say next? Avoid using the email service offered "for free!" by your internet service provider.

Before I get into the whys and wherefores, you're probably noticing how much I harp on the "free!" clause. Of course, we know they're not really free. Obviously, someone is paying for them. Could it be, uh, you and me? What the companies mean when they use the term free is really bundled. You are forced to pay for it and the cost is hidden, buried within your other fees (along with "free" webspace, "free" videophone service, "free" game portals, and so on). But when it is "free" in this sense, it's generally of minimal quality; whatever the provider can offer and still stick it in advertising copy with a straight face. Maybe some asterisks will help.

What do I mean by minimal quality? Well, for starters, there are few stated performance levels. No explanations of quality. No real guarantees. Just implied promises - most of which you, the wishful customer, read into it.

In the Comcast forum at, I have seen repeated reports of:
  • mail delivered after significant delays
  • undelivered mail
  • problems with their spam filtering
  • problems related to unadvertised limits
  • problems with other sites classifying Comcast as a provider of spam resulting in delays or blockages
Mail delays do not necessarily produce warning messages nor are complete failures necessarily reported to customers.

I have not followed Verizon's email service for as long but I have no reason to believe it would be any better - for much the same reason - it is offered as a freebie. Indeed, within the past few months, there have been outages reported (also at of Verizon's email service as well.

If you ask in just the right way, you may get credit on your bill for outages but such credits aren't guaranteed. There's no law requiring it nor is there anything in your contract to compel it. And even if you get credit, will it make up for the loss of service?

I've heard people claim "Personal email is not that important to me." Huh? Why even bother sending email if you're willing to accept that it won't be delivered? Or that you won't get the reply? Or that your email may disappear from your inbox?

I believe email’s use for telecommuting, communicating with businesses, or just interacting with friends and family, to be very important. Unfortunately, there are no organizations that monitor or regulate email performance. This means that any claims made by your provider should be viewed skeptically. And even if literally true, you need to read between the lines and think about the implications.

There are many providers who have mail standards and good records to match. For instance, and tuffmail are popular with some of my friends (although I don't use either myself). I hesitate to recommend my own provider or to even give specific recommendations because your choice will depend on numerous factors which differ from one provider to another. Most people focus on price and disk space limits. I give much more weight to reliability and support for IMAP. Other important attributes include bandwidth limits, spam/virus filtering, privacy, security, and timely status reports. Infinite Ink has a discussion of quality measures for IMAP providers that you may find helpful. If you know of a similar listing of POP providers or a forum in which mail service providers are discussed, I'd like to hear it.

Bottom line: Don't be surprised by disappointing (but "free!") email service from your cable provider. Expect to pay for quality mail service. Recognize the consequences of your choices in email providers. Anyone requiring a particular level of email service should arrange for email service from a provider which can provide a written performance standard and can demonstrate a record of timely delivery and reliable service.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


As I predicted, the Verizon franchise was approved on Tuesday (November 28, 2006). With the full council present instead of just three MFP committee members, the same questions were asked; the same responses were given. The very same responses were also given to new questions. For example, one councilmember asked how Verizon was able to buy out of the unlimited future obligations to provide free access to many agencies that Comcast is required to do.

Here's my paraphrase of that interchange between Jerry Pasternak, Special Assistant to the County Executive and Councilmember Steve Silverman:

Steve: I can understand that Verizon bought us off, but 1 million? My dog could've come up with that number.
Jerry: < insert handwaving here >
Steve: As long as you're not going to explain how you came up with that obviously arbitrary figure, can't we bleed them for more?

My paraphrase of Jerry's response is terse but otherwise accurate. His actual words were remarkably close to those that I quoted on Monday so I won't repeat them.

And with that ("that" meaning 10 minutes of decent discussion and 30 minutes of unnecessary hot council air and protocol), the franchise was passed. No last minute amendments. Unanimous.

Immediate Future

I've heard conflicting statements as to when it would be possible to order service. A Gazette article appears to suggest that, although approved, the franchise has yet to be signed by the council president but availability should follow immediately. The Verizon's press release says "by the end of December." The latter makes the most sense. However, availability will be rolled out in stages across the county with requirements for some areas on the order of years. For instance, as I understand the section applying to Rockville, even if they get approval from the City, Verizon has three years to offer service there. And if the issue isn't settled by the end of this year, the limit is pushed back to four years. (If the final franchise is different, I'll correct this as soon as I find out.)

Of course, these are just limits and, while legal, will probably be moot in the future. For example, the county could let Verizon take longer if things don't go well (RCN being an example of this). Alternatively, Verizon could act more quickly on its own. For now, Verizon promised availability to 75,000 homes as of January 1 2007 and asserted that they would have the staff - including bringing personnel from other regions - to deliver on that promise. Of course, that presumably refers only to the Initial Service Area described in the franchise. As for actually getting TV service installed - according to Lori Edwards' testimony, the franchise allows seven days for the installation of an ONT at the house and seven more days to turn on the service. So unless you have Verizon's internet service already, you can expect to wait a while from your initial service call.

Let the Discounts Commence

Earlier, I had said (incorrectly) that Verizon's internet service required an annual plan. I was wrong but the price is significantly higher for a monthly contract - so high that few people will get it. For instance, Verizon charges a $69.96 installation fee for monthly subscribers; for annual subscribers, the installation fee is $0.

If that seems an unconvincing come-on, I recently received a flyer: $15/month off for 3 months on an annual contract for Verizon's 15/2 service. This brings the price down to that of their lowest-speed service, which you can switch to at any time without penalty (e.g., after the 3 months is over). Think of it as a come-on to experience their higher-speed service for awhile at no extra charge.

On the downside, you're still obligated to a pay a $19.99 activation fee as well as being subject to a $99 early termination fee should you decide not to go the full year.

Will Verizon roll out more discounts come January 1? Undoubtedly they will offer something similar to what Comcast is doing - a triple or quadruple play offer. I'll have more to say about this as the promos roll by over the weeks ahead.

Of course, rates aren't everything. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how quickly Comcast responds.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Faith-Based Franchise

Readers may have noticed my recent lack of updates here. It's been a consequence of work-related deadlines followed by an invasion/occupation at my home over Thanksgiving. (No dad, I would not consider it helpful if you defrag my computer.)

Things slacked off enough for me to attend the MFP Committee Meeting on Monday, November 27 2006. Alas, the briefing packet appears to be an outdated briefing packet for an earlier worksession from a week earlier. I didn't attend the Monday session in person so I was stuck trying to make sense using the out-of-date packet.

Some of the issues from that earlier worksession had been resolved during yet another worksession, this one private, between Councilmember Marilyn Praisner, Verizon, and a small set of county officials and lawyers. They worked out some more issues but many remained. But from listening to the Monday session, it's apparent that Verizon is wearing down the county.

What's Left

Although it appeared that the county improved its position with Verizon on some areas (such as Poolesville) and MPDUs, for example, Verizon agreed to faster deployment - I don't think Verizon will find it challenging to deliver on those commitments. It's in their interest to do so anyway. (We interrupt this blog for an important Verizon-Rockville Status Report: Still going nowhere.)

On the other hand, the county was unable to get more control over Verizon's delivery of PEGs. After demagoging for a while about how important the PEGs were, Marilyn declared that she would take it "on faith" that Verizon would be willing to improve PEG delivery in the future. (I think the county should have offered to trade PEG channels for IPTV bandwidth, a win-win all around.)

Another area of disagreement concerned accounting over FCC requirements for telephone answering times. Verizon claimed that their call-answering service couldn't disaggregate whether calls were arriving from MC or other jurisdictions. Pretty hard to believe, given that Verizon is a phone company. But county officials didn't appear to want to hold up the franchise for it.

A more important issue was what kind of requirements Verizon would have for fixing service problems. For example, the negotiated proposal offers a hard limit of 72 hours - although not including weekends and holidays and perhaps not evening hours - after which credits would automatically be issued. This is quite a bit different than the existing franchise requirements which are in some ways shorter but don't require automatic credits. Also, existing language only requires a problem in a single channel whereas the Verizon proposal requires problems in all channels. To me, this is a showstopper right there.

Verizon's proposal also has different requirements for mass outages/credits but I'm not even going to bother describing that since the Verizon representative pointed out that they would be willing to accept the "inferior" language used in the existing franchises. I don't mean to be too unsympathetic - Verizon's offer may indeed work well for people who do not keep records or complain promptly. But as a person who does, I'd prefer to stick with the existing language. Marilyn didn't see that distinction but observed that she'd like the existing language simply for consistency. Okay, I won't argue with that idea.

Indeed, Marilyn asked Jerry Pasternak (Special Assistant to MC Executive Doug Duncan) - who presumably negotiated the original agreement on behalf of the county - how he could explain the large difference in the requirements, and his response is startling in its lack of information. Go ahead Jerry:
I think, I think that the bigger picture response to that is that these are, uh, this agreement is a separate different agreement than the ones that are in place. It was negotiated at a different time with different technology under different circumstances. And, uh, rather than, um, focus on specific detailed requirements in one agreement and insist on the same provision in the other, we looked at the entire package for comparability. We looked at what we thought would be a f... a business practice that a company tells us this is how they are structured and set up to operate and we concluded that although not identical, the two procedures, the two provisions are comparable enough and when consumers have that choice, uh, they can vote with their wallets and if they don't like the way their service is being handled they will have options and, ah, so we're not going to have identical provisions in these agreements but we think if you step back and take a look on the whole they're are not ... they are comparable uh and that was our reasoning for, uh, for the differences.
In other words, we agreed to what Verizon told us they wanted. Thanks, Jerry!

Marilyn went on to further point out that it's not as easy as Jerry might have us believe: That unhappy consumers will vote with their wallets and nimbly switch providers when unhappy. Given the years of unhappiness with Comcast which I and so many of my colleagues and friends have personally endured, it's hard to imagine switching back to them. Verizon is going to have to be really bad for that to happen. And even assuming that came to pass, what happens when Comcast screws us again? Switch back to Verizon? Huh?

Later in the meeting, again faced with a difference in the franchises, Jerry offered that the county could force Verizon to behave as if the franchise had the traditional wording - all we'd have to do is wait "12 months" to require Verizon to obtain the monitoring hardware and software and, oh, I dunno, another 12 months to get it running and collect data and turn it over to the county and have them eventually issue a fine only to be appealed. What?! Sorry Jerry, but this makes very little sense.

Despite all this very little sense, the committee members agreed to recommend the franchise go forward albeit with reservations on these unsettled issues. Despite my experience with the council wanting to tweak and control, I don't see it happening here. The council wants to pass this franchise - they are tired of having constituents complaining about Comcast; they are tired of having to talk about competition rather than provide it; and the subtleties of the franchise differences are likely to be lost on them, despite the yeoman efforts of council staffer Sonya Healy who does a damn good job in the briefing packets explaining the trade-offs. Of course, the council also recognizes that to disagree and potentially send this back for mediation or, god forbid, further legal action is the last thing the county wants to be involved in, the hell with the citizens. And lastly, the council is winding down and quite a few are leaving - they'd like to get credit for actually having done something useful with the cable mess.

So my prediction remains as before: On Tuesday, November 28, 2006, discussion beginning at 9:50am will end with the council passing the franchise - hopefully becoming more consistent with existing franchises but (and they'll all be saying this) "I can live with it either way."

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Crossbow Might Help

First of all - a correction. Previously, I mentioned that Verizon TV would require an annual contract. I was wrong. The Verizon packages and prices page says nothing about that - it does mention an annual contract option on the internet side which is where I became confused. My fault. Fortunately, I didn't mention that in my testimony on Tuesday.

In fact, I didn't testify on Tuesday nor did I attend the Monday MFP meeting. Instead, I attended the Serious Games Summit. In short, serious games are games used for non-entertainment purposes such as for learning about the environment or experimenting with gerrymandering. Doesn't sound fun? Imagine a World of Warcraft clan going after the golf course owner responsible for excessive runoff from fertilization. Or after a cable company that is ignoring your neighborhood. Who needs a customer support number? All of a sudden that crossbow feels a touch more useful.

Alas, the county is still stuck with traditional penalties in amounts that don't seem particularly effective. The most recent Comcast fine of $1228 works out to roughly half a penny per customer. Having been hit with these fines many times, Comcast's franchise just doesn't seem to have an impact. It doesn't have enough teeth. It lacks precision. It lacks clarity. And it looks like we're going to get another one just like it. Similar enough anyway. Inequities aside, what I see looming is a huge minefield which we'll spend the next 15 years exploring together.

Don't get me wrong. I desperately want competition. And Verizon seems competent enough. Admittedly, Comcast has set such a low bar that my expectations aren't high. But I like some of the things that Verizon is offering. Can't beat fiber to the house, that's for sure. And the prices look great. Will they deploy quickly enough? Will customer service be acceptable? Will channel selection, umm, suck? Or, paradoxically, will Verizon be so good that Comcast finds that it cannot compete and closes up shop leaving us in a de facto monopoly situation again? Should the franchise require that Verizon not be too good? Oops, sorry - I'm not seriously concerned about that last thought.

As Monday's MFP meeting showed, there's little for Verizon to worry about as long as Comcast continues its longstanding practices. I've already mentioned some of what was presented. This week's Gazette provided more updates including an announcement from Comcast that they would be hiring 400 more people in the DC metro area - a good example of a meaningless statement. Not only isn't it specific to MC, but it matters naught if the people aren't trained or just continue to follow the same scripts that they currently use.

To underscore how badly Comcast practices are currently, here's an excerpt from the same Gazette article. I particularly like the last paragraph.
Janice Cadel, 48, of Gaithersburg recently experienced Comcast’s customer service problems first hand, she told The Gazette.

When she called Comcast to change her billing because she added telephone service to her television and Internet service, ‘‘they literally closed out my Internet account,” Cadel said. ‘‘When I called the customer service line, I got hung up on several times.”

She managed to get through the next day and was told her Internet service would be restored in 24 to 48 hours. When it was not restored, Cadel called again and was told there was no record of her previous call. Her Internet connection was restored the next day, but Cadel said the e-mails the family received during the outage were lost.

‘‘We take customer service very seriously, and we’re always trying to make customer service exceptional for Comcast customers,” said spokeswoman Lisa Altman, who said she could not comment on specific complaints.
Two more tales of woe can be found in the October 30 MFP Packet - click on item 4 and then go to page 34.

Public Hearing

As I mentioned, I also missed Tuesday's meeting but Jaime Todero, a Rockville citizen, attended and provided the following summary (originally posted to dslreports):
Only 10 people testified:
1) Jane Lawton representing the County Executive
Gave similar testimony as when testifying before the Exec
2) City Councilmember Susan Hoffman representing the City of Rockville
Gave similar testimony as when testifying before the Exec
3) Suzanne Weiss representing the Cable and Communications Advisory Committee (yes, the old name was on the agenda)
Testimony was largely regarding PEG issues.
4) Briana Gowing representing Verizon
Got cheers when she said MASN would be delivered without the $2 surcharge.
5) Michael Egan, individual
Asked for more consumer protections, but as Praisner pointed out afterwards, his suggestions are not legal
6) Richard Turner representing Montgomery Community Television
Testified to issues regarding free service at public buildings, and some other PEG-related issues
7) David Friedman, individual
Pointed out that Comcast supplies free service to 700 places, but Verizon is only required to serve 100.
8) Angela Lee representing Comcast.
Noted the differences between Comcast's requirements and Verizon's requirements (neglected to note that Verizon will pay 3% PEG/INet fee but Comcast is quite a bit shy of that)
9) Robert Carlisle, individual
Former Corning employee, is delighted to see the new network - the sooner the better.
10) Jaime Todaro, individual
Basically just said: Hurry Up Already!

In follow-up questions, Praisner asked Lawton to point out the changes the exec made in response to public testimony by the 13th, and she jokingly suggested that Rockville should de-annex if they want all their footprint covered in 2 years. She also suggested that Egan pursue a Cable Compliance Commission claim.

In response to Andrews' question regarding what could be done to speed things up, Gowing noted that the service dates VZ was willing to commit to in the agreement were the "outside" dates and service would likely be ready sooner in most cases.

Leventhal pointed out that we're just as likely to have uniformly high prices and uniformly bad service, and asked Verizon if there was any chance he was wrong. Gowing's answer was pretty weak, and Lawton added that other jurisdictions with agreements in place have not noticed better customer service.

In closing, Praisner pointed out that many folks on the I-270 "technology corridor" (a reference to Carlisle's testimony) would not see service for 7 years if ever, and assured everyone that this matter, as well as the inequitable number of free service locations would be looked in to.

After the hearing, I spoke to Doug Breisch (sp?) of Rockville DTS, who seemed stunned that Verizon was preparing to light Montrose Road, and asked me for specific streets where deployment is happening. I assured him it was all outside the city limits.

The MFP committee will hold a worksession to discuss the Verizon franchise on November 13, 2006. This worksession is open to the public. If the worksession sends the franchise to the full council, the earliest it can be heard is November 28 since that is the next time the council meets. However, the agenda for that meeting will not be available until November 22.

Although these delays drive some people crazy, I've been figuring for awhile that January 2007 was a realistic target. November 1 would be even better. But either one qualifies as "imminent" in my book. So I called up Verizon, and asked if I could be put on a waiting list to get their TV service.

I was turned down.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Public Hearing

MFP Committee

On Monday, October 30, the MFP committee will meet at 10:30am for a quarterly review of its franchisees - and soon-to-be-franchisee Verizon.

The MFP briefing packet contains reports by Sonya Healy (MC Council staffer), Jane Lawton (MC Cable Administrator), and CTC (testing and inspection contractor) which describes the good and bad for the last quarter - otherwise known as business as usual. For instance, Comcast was hit with a fine in the 2nd quarter and for the 3rd quarter has not submitted sufficient data to even know if it is in compliance. But partial figures show some decreases in customer service performance.

Complaints to the Cable Office are up 31% from 2nd quarter with 76% for service. (Complaints for RCN are down 40% for the same period.) CTC reported 2450 violations, up 11% from the 2nd quarter and 53% from a year ago. While many have now been corrected, CTC reports 1830 violations outstanding.

Picture freezing is mentioned as a notable problem which the county is receiving complaints about. Hasn't this problem been going on ever since Comcast rolled out its digital service? Another problem mentioned is the issue of standard installations. This was supposed to have been settled but evidentally customers are still being overcharged.

Comcast is also well behind on its obligation to provide cable service to public facilities. Jane's report shows 33 outstanding requests.

The committee also expects to deal with Verizon - at the very least to answer questions related to the franchise agreement. In the October 31 briefing packet, Sonya presents twelve issues that she wants addressed. More on this below.

Public Hearing

And the following day, Tuesday, October 31, the county council will hold a hearing for the public to provide input on the Verizon franchise agreement that the County Executive has proposed.

Sonya's report in the packet provides a comparison between the proposed and existing franchises. (When she says other agreements, she is referring to the existing franchises.) I cannot provide a link to the packet on the council website because it currently returns a Visual Basic error, sigh. But that's just as well - because the packet isn't searchable, grr. So I have made a searchable version of the packet you can download from my own website. (Oddly, it's also much smaller than the original - can anyone explain that?)

The number of differences are extensive and I won't go through them all but here are a few examples:
  • There are a number of differences over cable service availability. For example, Verizon appears to have been given some loopholes by which they can refuse to provide service if there are "technical reasons" that make it too difficult or unreasonable.

  • Much of Verizon's build-out is not subject to the provisions required of other franchisees because their infrastructure provides traditional phone service, making it subject to different provisions. More specifically, the franchise says that Verizon must comply with the provisions but there are no specific response times or penalties specified.

  • Verizon may have to provide significantly more network capacity for PEG channels if other franchises convert PEG channels to digital. Verizon will also pay a percentage of gross revenues instead of a fixed fee. Whose favor this works out to depends entirely on Verizon's success.
The remaining differences, and there are many more, can be found in the first ten pages of the packet. The packet also requests additional information from Verizon. Until these and several other issues are addressed, it is impossible to say whether the franchise is equitable both to Verizon and the existing franchisees. It is apparent that amendments must be made to the franchise in order for these issues to be addressed.

A CTC report is also provided in the packet. It raises additional issues. For example, it says "The County should verify that the set-top converters selected by Verizon work with widely-available DVRs and other consumer components, ..."

The packet also includes report from the Cable Office. I wish I could agree with everything in the report but it artfully dodges some issues. For example, page 35 has the following paragraph:
Another benefit we expect from Verizon MU'S entry into the cable market is improved service quality. Since providers must vie for a limited number of consumers in certain areas of the County, there is a strong incentive to be responsive to subscriber needs, and to provide reliable, high-quality services. In the past, cable subscribers in the County have complained about poor picture quality and other problems. With the advent of competition, it is likely that traditional deficiencies will be avoided or quickly corrected, since consumers can easily change service providers.
However, it is my understanding that Verizon is offering only yearly contracts making it not so easy to change service providers if consumers are unhappy with the service they receive from Verizon.

The Cable Office report also omitted the public testimony provided by citizens at the Executive Hearing last month, instead choosing to summarize it. Needless to say, their summary was terse and omitted, for example, any of the issues that I raised. The report also referred to written comments from Comcast. These were also omitted from the report as were portions of the original filing as I described earlier.

Your Turn

Due to conflicts in my own schedule, I will not be able to testify in person; however I plan to submit a written statement. If you would like to testify in person, the council has a page that explains how to sign up and gives some advice on how to how to testify effectively.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I trust everyone enjoyed the presentations at the Public Hearing on the Verizon Cable Franchise Application. It's too late to submit comments for the record; However, there will be another opportunity - this time for the County Council which must approve the application.

But I'm skipping over something important. The Executive is supposed to digest the public testimony and based on it, make a recommendation to the council. Anyone want to guess what that recommendation will be?

Presuming the obvious, the council has already set a date for its hearing: October 31, 2006. Costumes anyone? (The politicos would pay a lot more attention to your testimony if you showed up with a spool of cable over your shoulder and a Freddy Kreuger mask on your face.) The time of the hearing is 1:30pm which makes it rather inconvenient for most citizens. Hmm. Is it better to hold these hearings during the day (when citizens won't attend them) or during the evening (when politicians won't attend them)?

But the public will be listening. I've heard from a large number of people who have watched the video archive of the hearing.

Speaking of which, can we improve the quality of the video? The audio is fine but the picture is so poor that the faces lack detail and the smaller subtitles are completely unreadable. Given that the viewership is entirely local, the county should be able to pump out higher-bandwidth video without incurring excessive charges or latency. It doesn't make sense that we can get high-quality video free from Google on the other side of the US but we can't get decent video from down the street in Rockville when the county network is hooked directly to Comcast and RCN fiber (and presumably soon Verizon as well). As I mentioned in my presentation, the franchise should ensure that the government has plenty of bandwidth for video-on-demand (VOD). And once the franchise does, then we need to actually use the bandwidth more effectively too. VOD is the future and, for some already, the present. Did anyone watch Channel 6 live? Or was it all via the archive?

I used to be able to watch the Channel 6 archives in a choice of video formats as well as on both Windows and Mac. It appears we have taken a giant step backward. Now the archives are only available in Windows Media (which truly stinks for trying to make transcripts due to the lack of precise control and significant lag). And the archives are only accessible on Windows and only using Internet Explorer.

Bottom line: Not only is the county making it more difficult for people to testify, but the county is making it more difficult to hear others testify as well. Something is seriously wrong here.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Executive Hearing Testimony

This past Thursday, September 28 2006, I attended the hearing for the public to testify on the Proposed Verizon franchise. There were 15 speakers, most of them members of the public. There were no council members present and the executive (whose hearing it was) was not there either. I was not surprised as the same thing happened at the previous hearing of this type (the last was during the Comcast transfer several years ago).

A few of the presentations were excellent and I hope to get a hold of the transcripts when available. In the meantime, if you're on a Windows platform, you can watch the video. It's about an hour. A discussion of some of the testimony can be found at dslreports.

Here is what I presented. If it seems short, that's because members of the public were asked to keep it to 3 minutes.
My name is Don Libes and I thank you for the opportunity to testify on the proposed Verizon franchise.

Although I look forward to competition in Montgomery County, I am concerned that the county appears to be rushing into this particular agreement without a thorough understanding of what it means.

I have been stymied in understanding it myself. For example, I have asked the county cable office for a list of differences between the current and new franchises and have received no reply. Surely, the council needs such a list as well. Please make this information available along with a clear explanation of the reason for each change and its expected impacts.

I would also like to ask why the county appears to be suppressing much of the background material. For example, roughly 135 pages have been made available. This is in contrast to the roughly 900 pages of material made available during the last Comcast negotiation. What’s missing?

The technology assessment from CTC is completely missing. The assessment from the county’s financial advisors Ashpaugh & Sculco is missing. There’s no correspondence, no indication of discussions, no explanation of the reasons the proposed franchise looks the way it does.

And this is after a year of negotations followed by court actions and mediation, during which the franchise was shaped. There ought to be a huge paper trail and the county needs to provide this to the public. And all PDF documents should be searchable. The council does this; the Executive should as well.

Time will not permit all my other questions but here are a few examples:

Will the existing franchises be changed in any ways to bring them closer in to line with this new one? If so, how?

How are gross revenues for video-on-demand and streaming video to be computed? Does it depend on whether such video is initiated via an internet connection or whether it is transferred using cable TV bandwidth? The franchise is too vague on what is and is not a cable service and leaves consumers open to unpleasant surprises and court battles.

How does the county justify the continuing demand for dedicated PEG channels when they are more effectively provided as video-on-demand? The county continues to do this without any meaningful viewer statistics as far as I’m aware. Just because the FCC says we can doesn’t mean we should. Video-on-demand is the future of narrowcasting and PEGs should lead the way. I believe the cost to the consumer would decrease and PEG viewership would rise if VOD were widely adopted by the PEGs and protected by the franchise.

Lastly, the Verizon application, attachment 4, promises an analog tier in the clear but the corresponding description in the proposed franchise seems quite a bit more narrow. As most subscribers seek to avoid set-top boxes, please address this difference between the two documents.

Thank you for allowing me to testify on the proposed Verizon franchise.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Hearing Tonight

As I mentioned previously, the public is invited to testify at the hearing this evening (Thursday, Sept 28 2006) on the proposed Verizon franchise.

Earlier today I spoke to Amy Wilson in the Cable Office and she said that 16 people are on the list to speak tonight. It's not too late to pre-register and she encouraged pre-registration but said that people will be permitted to speak without registering in advance. Citizens normally get 3 minutes each. Additional comments can be submitted in writing or email up to October 2. Note: The meeting has been moved from the 3rd floor to the 7th floor of the County Council Building.

Amy also explained that the hearing is for the benefit of the County Executive. (I had previously written that it was a council hearing.) This tells me that the proposed franchise is still in the Executive's hands and has not gone to the council for approval. I don't know what to make of that given the county's publication of the proposed franchise on their website. My past experience with these dual hearings is that the county executive hearings are purely for appearance. Nothing I've ever heard at one - at least the cable-related hearings - has been incorporated or used in any way.

In contrast, comments at the council hearings do get more consideration. You'd think that it ought to work in reverse - that the earlier you get your comments in, the more likely they can be incorporated. Your best bet: Give testimony at both hearings.

Yes, there will be a second hearing on the Verizon franchise. The council is required to hold their own. I'm not aware that any date for that hearing has been set yet. So predicted deployment dates that I mentioned previously should be moved further back - perhaps by another month at best.

See you tonight!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Proposed Verizon Franchise

Verizon has officially submitted their franchise application. The Executive has accepted it and the two have agreed on a franchise. Whew!

I'll be precise: the franchise should now be referred to as the proposed franchise because it must still approved by the County Council. We can expect them to request changes to the proposed franchise. There will be severe pressure not to make changes but that won't stop them from trying - they are politicians, after all. It's in their nature.

In addition, they are required to hold a public hearing on the franchise. There's little reason to speak at the hearing just to encourage the council to approve the franchise. Shucks, even Comcast has said "... we welcome competition" so mere cheerleaders are not needed.

But if there is something that isn't properly addressed in the proposal, it is our duty as citizens to point it out. Indeed, that is the point of the public hearing. It is our one opportunity to speak directly and publicly to the council on the matter. Given that the proposal is for a 15-year franchise (that lengthy term itself is only the start of my concerns), this is a rare opportunity indeed.
A public hearing will be held on September 28 at 7 p.m. in the Third Floor Hearing Room of the Stella B. Werner Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. Individuals may either testify in person at the public hearing or provide written comments for the record. To pre-register to testify at the hearing, contact the County’s Cable Office at 240-777-3684. Written comments may be submitted through 5:00 p.m. on Monday, October 2, 2006 or as otherwise directed by the Hearing Officer. Comments should be mailed or delivered to DTS-Cable Office, 100 Maryland Avenue, Suite 250, Rockville, MD 20850. Comments may also be submitted via email to
The hearing is less than 2 weeks away. You may get excited that such a rapidly-scheduled hearing means MC is now pushing hard to get to the end, but I'm concerned that there isn't enough time to review the material, form an educated position, and write any kind of intelligent statement with suggestions to the council. The application and proposed franchise have only just been released to the public. And I've seen no analysis whether the franchise proposal has any changes from current franchises. (Surely, the county has such an analysis?) What timebombs are waiting in the franchise for us to discover only when it is too late? (Community discussion and analysis can be found at

I've only started going through the material myself. Do we know how some of the contentious issues were resolved? No. (For example, will Verizon be subject to the existing cable modem regulations or was Verizon able to get them scrapped?) At the same time, I'm already shocked at the LACK of material. During the last Comcast franchise hearing, there were 900 or so pages of documentation made available to the public. That depth of analysis is either missing here or has been withheld from the public. For instance, the financial data is completely absent.

Various MC officials have stated that the conditions should be the same across franchises; however, don't misinterpret this to mean Verizon will just get a copy of the existing Comcast franchise. There are plenty of things in the existing requirements that don't make much sense in the context of duplicate systems (such as the institutional network and free access for public facilities). And other provisions are worded so vaguely that the provisions are useless (such as the telephone answering requirements). New franchises are opportunities to fix the worst of these.

Since the council can significantly delay the process, my guess is another four months before service can actually be offered, meaning roughly January 1 of 2007. Verizon hedged a bit and predicted "early next year." Jane Lawton, MC Cable Administrator, carefully spoke only about MC activity when the Washington Post quoted her saying that "council approval could come by the end of the year."

MC Wins ... and Loses

One might assume that the Verizon agreement is a win for Montgomery County. Whether that's true depends very much on the individual.

For example, the COPE Act is the national franchise bill pending in Congress. Earlier, I had wondered if COPE would make the Verizon lawsuit moot if the lawsuit ran long enough. COPE actually has some good provisions as well as bad ones. Consider the PEG financing amendment. COPE would have lowered the payment to PEGs from 3% to 1% of gross revenues. If you are a watcher of PEG channels, this is a disaster - think 66% budget cut. (The PEGs claim 53% but don't explain their calculations. Close enough anyway. The point is, it's a huge cut.) On the other hand, if you don't watch PEG channels (which is probably true for greater than 95% of the population), you might wonder why you have to pay for all this stuff you don't watch.

But the cost for PEGs is peanuts compared to the expected (17%) savings that other communities are averaging from competitive TV offerings. And we can already see the dramatic difference in the cost of internet service. It's inconceivable that Comcast will not lower its internet prices. And Comcast will have to raise its performance as well. I've compared the two services before and the figures are still valid. (See Best Deal For Comcast Customers and What's FIOS.)

On the other hand, if you're an RCN customer, you may not find this news too uplifting. For RCN, this is yet one more nail in the coffin - quite unfortunate given RCN's record of customer satisfaction. As long as Comcast was their competition, it was easy for RCN to shine. But with Verizon entering the picture - driving down prices - and all three offering triple plays (and possibly quadruple plays - net, tv, home phone, cell phone), RCN will likely find its business even more financially untenable. The winners in the industry are growing in order to profit from the advantages of scale. RCN, which recently sold off a significant base of its subscribers, is headed in the other direction. RCN claims it is looking for a buyer but it would be nuts to buy its MC operation given the presence of Comcast and Verizon. And there's no reason for either of them to buy RCN either.

One more potential winner: Rockville. Since the earlier treatment that Rockville was giving Verizon, it appears that Rockville is coming around. I've been told that Verizon offered to fund a new study that might justify lower permit fees in Rockville. And the Baltimore Business Journal reports that the proposed franchise would include Rockville.

Finally, it bears mentioning that Verizon's lawsuit has not disappeared. Until the council approves the franchise and the papers are signed, Verizon will hold the lawsuit over MC's head. Good thing, too.

TAC This

The Telecommunications Advisory Committee is a group of citizens appointed by the Montgomery County Executive to provide advice to the Executive and the Council. Earlier this summer, I pointed out how disappointed I was that the TAC wasn't meeting during the summer. Let me rephrase that: I'm disgusted that the TAC is completely out of the loop. In my earlier tirade, I gave examples of what they've missed during their summer recesses and to that list we can now add another item of significance: the proposed franchise. As of today, they still haven't met since they began their recess and thus there will not be enough time to deliver a TAC recommendation to the council on the franchise by the September 28 deadline.

But this should not be a surprise. The TAC has been kept out of the loop for the entire year of Verizon negotations. It was never told about the extent of the meetings with Verizon. The TAC was never informed about the recommendations the county was making to Verizon or what Verizon was requesting in return. The TAC was never told about any of the Verizon-related FCC filings. And the TAC was not invited to the strategy discussions of the Council or the Executive.

So a failure to deliver any kind of recommendation is, well, tradition. There's no point to continuing the committee anyway - is there? When was the last time the Executive followed the TAC's advice anyway? I fail to see the point of going through the pretense of advertising for candidates, interviewing them, selecting them, having the council approve them, and holding meetings. It's a big charade. It's a waste of taxpayer dollars. We ought to stop it.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Shareholders Love The Nats

Last week, I mentioned how Councilmember Howie Denis had used his rhetorical moment during a quarterly franchise review to complain about the failure of Comcast to carry the Nationals games here in Montgomery MD (and throughout the DC region).

At the time, I observed that it was pointless given that Comcast and MASN had entered arbitration over the matter. That arbitration has now concluded. It looks like Comcast won and subscribers also won. Or lost. Depends on your point of view.

Somehow omitted from the Comcast press release about the good news was the bad news: Comcast plans to increase their rates $2 per subscriber (plus additional franchise fees and taxes) to pay for the coverage of the Nats games. Ok, not all subscribers - just those subscribing to Comcast's enhanced basic - in other words, anyone getting more than the lowest-numbered 30 or so channels (which includes such gems as the Home Shopping Network, QVC, and the TV Guide Channel).

Put bluntly, most subscribers will be hit with the $2 surcharge.

Who Would Willingly Pay For QVC?

This raises the obvious question: Why should subscribers who have no interest in Nats games be forced to pay for them?

Putting aside the conflicting studies showing whether a la carte packages are more expensive (FCC, 2004) or less expensive (FCC, 2006) and whether they improve or hinder diversity of programming, the answer is more likely that enough people will watch whatever sports are put on TV, and that a few dollars here and a few dollars there aren't large enough increases to hit people hard enough to change their behavior - to sit up and question the status quo. (Curiously, it is much harder to find the later report on the FCC website than their earlier report.)

Another significant factor is that the bulk of Comcast's broadband customers still believe they are getting a better deal by subscribing to Comcast's video service to get the package discount. I've previously shown that isn't true but habit, effective advertising, and automatic billing are hard to overcome.

PS: Join me in thanks that we don't live in DC and have to pay for yet another stadium boondoggle!

Shareholders Should Be Happy

The details of the arbitration have not been made public but the August 12 2006 Washington Post quotes a MASN spokesperson as saying the true cost is $1.25 per subscriber. Simple subtraction (2.00 - 1.25) suggests that Comcast is using this hike to raise their profit (after lawyers fees) by .75 per subscriber. With roughly 200,000 subscribers in MC that equates to $150K a month in additional profit or $1.8M per year. Nice.

According to the Post article, Comcast denies this, indicating that "MASN's statements . . . show a lack of familiarity with the provisions of the carriage agreement and with the basics of the cable television marketplace." If anyone knows what she's referring to, I'd like to hear. And so would Cox, DirectTV, RCN, and Verizon. They all carry the Nats games and have not raised rates either.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Festina Lente

On August 8, 2006, I attended a preliminary hearing on Verizon Maryland, Inc. v. Montgomery Co., MD.

As a reminder, Verizon's lawsuit asked for:
... a preliminary injunction invalidating Montgomery County's current cable franchising law and directing the county to negotiate a franchise with Verizon on lawful terms within 60 days. At the same time - in an effort to help speed the negotiations to resolution - Verizon is asking the court to invalidate the numerous unlawful requirements the county is attempting to impose on the company.
As I looked around the courtroom, I concluded that were this a simple guilty / not guilty case, I'd have had to bet on Verizon based on the number of people alone. I counted 13 people representing VZ versus 6 from the county. But except for lawyer's bills, things are never that predictable.

Fere Libenter Homines Id Quod Volunt Credunt

Despite my fear that the judge would make some superficial action such as throwing the whole thing out or granting a continuance, the judge dived right in to the meat of the case. Although he didn't appear to be up to speed on everything, he at least recognized the basic positions of the two parties and why agreements were not fast in coming.

As I munched my popcorn, the lawyers brought up various precedents (which they proceeded to misinterpret or otherwise abuse) that, while interesting seemed, to me at least, to demonstrate why so much law is just garbage and why English is a terrible way of expressing anything definitively. (And, de facto, Latin doesn't help.)

I'm not going to go through the individual arguments except to say that the judge listened to a few of the disagreements and in each case pointed out that, at least in spirit, there was agreement but for the sloppy language in the existing franchise or the federal cable act.

And with that ("that" having taken several hours), the judge denied the preliminary injunction but ordered that the court will appoint a mediator (a magistrate judge who is not a resident of Montgomery County or Baltimore) and that Verizon will be directed to file its application immediately, in parallel, and without a negative impact on the case.

Rather than mediating all issues simultaneously, the judge specified that issues would be mediated one at a time - or however would best make progress. The mediator would have no specific power (i.e., not binding arbitration); however, if the mediation failed, the parties would then return before the judge who could make a definitive ruling, even potentially throwing out sections of MC's cable-related code or taking some action that would cause Verizon to forfeit its $450K filing fee. Given what each side has to lose, it makes sense for the parties to work cooperatively and a neutral mediator could be helpful.

I said "could" because while the proceedings appeared to go smoothly, the judge chose only to discuss some of the more easily resolvable differences. For example, the judge got basic agreement on the franchise acceptance fee. But there was no discussion on some of the thornier issues such as cable modem regulation and transitive regulation of Verizon's existing infrastructure and phone service.

And even in places where the judge seemingly had the parties nodding their heads in agreement, I have to express doubt as to whether they can really get it in writing. For example, the lawyers conceded that 5% of gross revenues applied only to video-related service, no matter what the franchise said. But I question whether the lawyers and the judge really understand the implications of convergence (i.e., the future melding of video and internet technology). As a trivial example, when Verizon delivers video to your computer over the internet, will this be subject to a 5% franchise fee because it's video or 0% because it's internet? It's important to realize that the distinction between the two is very loose despite the traditional notion that we have over them today.

So I think that the mediation process sounds great but may turn out to solve none of the serious areas of disagreement, forcing things back in the judge's hands in 60 days or whenever the mediator's time runs out. (A timeline was established behind closed doors and I don't know if this will be made public.) While this process could induce additional delays, the judge has the authority to settle things definitively - at least until one of the parties appeals the outcome. Appeals would be the worst possible outcome and surely neither Verizon nor MC wants to go that route.

In the short term, action yesterday potentially paves the way for a peaceful and (here I'd love to say "swift" but almost anything is swift relative to a year of non-) forward progress. As long as it can be done equitably, both MC and Verizon have strong motivation to settle and sign a franchise. Let's hope they do.

Rideo, Ergo Sum

In the spirit of painful humor, this flash video has been circulating around. It's sad the depths we've sunk to. On the other hand, I do agree that Go Montgomery! was a political gimmick in the first place. (And is now a failed political gimmick.) So in that sense, the video and the program deserve each other.

Acta Est Fabula Plaudite

The first person to post a comment with correct translations of all the Latin phrases I've used gets a coupon for a free pizza (coupon courtesy of Comcast). And after this, I promise - no more Latin!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

CDV Complaints Commence

This past Monday (July 31, 2006), I attended the quarterly county review of video franchise holders in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Contrary to my earlier prediction of a rollicking good time, it was anything but. Did I fail to get the memo? There were only about six people in the audience, a big difference from past meetings when the house was packed. This was even more surprising given that we've gone half a year without one of these things. So the meeting was really to review two quarters worth.

We started with a review of how well Comcast and RCN have been meeting their franchise requirements. Some complaints levels were up a little, some were down a little. The Cable Office received 263 complaints about Comcast in Q1 and another 387 in Q2. The Q2 complaint levels are down from last year's but recall that last year's were unusually high (which Comcast blamed on Verizon). For both quarters, more than half of Comcast's complaints (438 of 650) were for service. For RCN, more than half (17 of 28) were for billing.

There were 2150 and 2199 construction violations by Comcast in Q1 and Q2 respectively. RCN figures were 478 and 715 for the same periods. Is it that hard to install and maintain cable plants? Do other jurisdictions get these high figures?

Jane Lawton, MC Cable Administrator, presented these statistics along with notices of fines and warnings that both franchisees keep getting. Jane extolled Comcast's new General Manager Sanford Ames in one breath and in the next breath went on with her recitation of continuing problems.

Although the county can assess fines for some things, it has a tougher problem with other issues. For instance, the county must approve Comcast's privacy policy and they rejected yet another one. It's been at least two years now that Comcast has violated this provision of the franchise. But short of yanking the entire franchise, I'm not sure what recourse the county has. Why do we have a franchise with provisions that aren't enforceable?

CDV Complaints Commence

I hate when the Cable Office swallows the corporate cool-aid - witness their willness to use Comcast-speak while describing Comcast's new family tier as family friendly. Don't get me wrong - I have a great deal of respect for the Cable Office. And sympathy. They don't have a lot flexibility in the tools at their disposal. And I like that they track things that they aren't even required to track. Yet a new category of complaints they've begun tracking is for telephone service offered by the franchises. Well, maybe they have been tracking this for RCN (which has offered phone service in the past) but it has never come up before. However it certainly came up at this meeting.

The Cable Office reported having received 80 complaints for Comcast Digital Voice (CDV) with some outages of "2 to 3 weeks" according to testimony. That's 80 complaints to the Cable Office. (Angela Lee, Comcast's Director of Government Affairs, naturally refused to say how many complaints Comcast got directly.) It was at this point that the participants seemed to leave all knowledge behind because CDV was repeatedly referred to as VoIP and relying on the internet, both of which are misleading. The council didn't seem to understand nor did Angela how CDV is unlike traditional VoIP. I'm not sure that anyone did because no one else in attendence made any attempt to clear it up either. (Members of the public are not permitted to interrupt at these meetings, even if it's to correct blatant mistakes. Instead we do a lot of teeth gritting.)

I was left wondering if the reported 2 to 3 week outages were simply for internet service or really were for CDV. Nonetheless, it was clear from the complaints that consumers were extremely surprised (not to mention unhappy) at the unreliable nature of Comcast's phone service. Councilmember Marilyn Praisner asked what kind of statements Comcast was making about the reliability of the service and Angela responded that customers are told about various conditions (such as limited battery life during power outages) that can affect service. Praisner restated the question thusly: What are customers told about the reliability of the service BEFORE they sign up and BEFORE they sever the relationship with their previous phone company. I didn't get Angela's exact words because I was so stunned after she said it but it was pretty close to this: Many of our customers are experienced and already know about the unreliability of VoIP. Oh really!

And the misleading (or bizarre) statements continued. At one point, the council started asking about complaints regarding pixellation in the digital channels. I was surprised to hear Angela give a lengthy reply which amounted to It's complex but which also implied that she hadn't a clue but was prepared to talk as long as it took for the councilmembers to get tired of asking questions. At one point, she said (paraphrase) Pixellation in the digital channels is much harder to debug than snow in the analog channels. C'mon Angela. If you don't know what you're talking about, just say you don't know. Alas, the councilmembers accepted her blather and moved on to other items.


To my surprise, there was no review of Verizon performance at the meeting. Not even an update on FIOS construction. Marilyn uttered only one sentence - that there would be no comments pending the litigation.

Meanwhile Verizon has put up a petition for MC residents to express their desire for cable video competition. It intends to present the petition to the county at some point. I'm not sure how compelling that will be compared to a lawsuit though! Isn't this like following a bomb with a flyswatter? Is this the backup in case the bomb is a dud? Could Verizon be worried that the lawsuit will be dismissed? (I signed it anyway.)

We might find out soon. On August 7 2006 at 10am, motions will be heard on Verizon Maryland, Inc. v. Montgomery Co., MD MJG-06-1663 in Courtroom 5C at the US District Court for the District of Maryland. The address is 101 W. Lombard Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. As one poster to dryly noted: "I understand it will not be catered." Anyone interested in going anyway?


A few last notes about RCN. RCN seems to be having some problems. They are having cable plant maintenance problems. And their complaint numbers are up significantly. (It's a bit strange to consider numbers in the teens as "significant" but then we're using to seeing their complaint numbers in the ones!) As I said earlier, most of the RCN complaints were regarding billing (in comparison most of Comcast's complaints were about service).

So why the spike? RCN says there were two reasons. First, they had growth in subscribers they didn't have enough staff to deal with! Second, it appears that the growth was due to new packages they offered. But don't worry ... We got rid of the marketing guy who came up with the new packages! Huh? I must've misinterpreted their explanation but that's what it sounded like!


Finally, I can't help noting that the Councilmembers each enjoyed a bit of posturing for the cameras undoubtedly due to the the upcoming elections that the three members of the MFP committee are facing. Councilmember Marilyn Praisner repeatedly spoke to the cameras. For instance, when Jane made reference to some FCC forms, Marilyn asked Jane to explain the form names for the benefit of people watching on TV. I'm figuring that Marilyn didn't remember the cryptic numbers. I don't hold this against her. Who does remember all those numbers?! But to ask for the explanations this way is unseemly and transparently so.

After all, the entire meeting is filled with jargon and subtle concepts that go unexplained (and frequently misunderstood by many of the attendees themselves). If Marilyn really wanted the audience to understand all the obscure references, the meeting would take an entire day.

Admittedly, I did enjoy when she quoted something right out of one of my earlier postings when she started her line of questioning over the policy for getting a hold of a supervisor, finally ending with the rhetorical question: Is it possible that there are no supervisors?

Councilmember Phil Andrews also got his opportunity to pose for the cameras. He went on for awhile about how customers are regularly frustrated in their dealings with Comcast and how it has been this way for years. And in the middle of his turn at rhetorical questioning, he "accidentally" let slip how competition would help. If that's not playing to the constituency, I don't know what is.

Don't get me wrong. I agree with Marilyn and Phil on most of their positions and would be glad to see them back on the council next term. It's just that I wonder where they're going with their lines of questioning at these meetings. An an example, Phil asked what kind of training is received by the Comcast phone people. (Comcast calls these people CAEs for Customer Account Executives. Don't you want to be an executive, too?)

So he and Angela got into a fascinating but ultimately useless discussion - because whatever the training is, IT'S CLEARLY NOT ENOUGH! Angela could've said they're trained for 6 years (actual amount: 6 weeks) but so what? I get frustrated with at least 50% of the calls I make to Comcast. Phil could ask me for several stories from this month alone. Instead, he dragged out some letter he received a YEAR AGO complaining about Comcast closing out complaints without first checking with the customer to see if the problem really had been solved. To be sure, Comcast's practice of closing complaints prematurely hasn't gone away BUT THAT'S THE POINT. It's been a year since the MFP Committee excoriated Comcast for this practice and nothing's changed. It's all for naught. Why does the MFP committee bother?

As if Phil still hadn't caught on, he also talked about another letter he received from a Silver Spring resident complaining about four missed appointments and a litany of other Comcast problems encountered along the way). Angela did a very imaginative job coming up with rationalizations as to how it could happen. Phil got no traction and ultimately Angela got the last word: We're looking into this. And I'm sure she will be - or whoever her replacement is - a year from now.

I must admit I did find one interchange between Phil and Angela interesting. He asked what the turnover was in CAEs and to my astonishment, she answered.

Angela: Our attrition rate is 7.5%
Phil: Is that 7.5% a quarter or a year?
Angela: That's per quarter.
Don (silently): That explains a lot!

My last example is Councilmember Howard ("Howie") Dennis. Howie is truly an asset to the committee. By keeping his mouth closed, the meetings go much quicker then they otherwise might. But I guess he wants to get re-elected too so he opened his mouth despite my fervent prayer. His 1st question: Why can't I get the Nats games?! I was stupified as he noted that he was aware that the issue had gone to arbitration because, despite admitting this, he went on to brilliantly suggest that Comcast "split the difference" with MASN (the network that holds the cable rights to the Nats games). Howie, what's your point here? Showing that you understand something that happened in the past and over which you have no control now? Do you really think voters find this compelling?

Howie went on to ask some absurd question about the customer service requirements of the franchise (such as the requirement that phones be answered within 30 seconds 90% of the time). I don't recall who (I think it was Marilyn) gently explained that these provisions come right from the FCC regulations. If she had really wanted to go to town, she could've pointed out that they had already reviewed the figures an hour earlier and WHY WAS HE ASKING ABOUT THEM NOW?! Not to mention, they've been discussed at every quarterly review he's attended as well as during council meetings. Howie, that's really great that you're interested in understanding what you're supposed to be legislating NOW THAT YOU'RE AT THE END OF YOUR TERM!!


And with that, thankfully, the meeting was adjourned. If you'd like more information, you can read the council's briefing packet which contains all the statistics, the inspection reports, and the letters to which I've referred here. And if anyone has any corrections, please let me know. The county hasn't made this session available on streaming video for some reason, so I'm relying on my notes and memory. (Curiously, there was a Gazette reporter taking notes as well but I've seen no article from the Gazette about the meeting.)

Incidentally, I also listened to the prior item on the agenda which was a review of a request for a non-video franchise to allow Fiber Technologies to lay fiber in the MC rights-of-way. As is the case with all of these that I've seen, MC extracted its pound of flesh. In this case, the company is obligated to provide the county:
  • 5% of gross receipts,
  • users' tax,
  • cost of permits,
  • 4 strands of lit fiber,
  • and up to $2000 to cover miscellaneous costs.
As to what the government does with all these strands (that all go nowhere particularly useful if you're not a business), I have no idea. One of these days, I'll have to track down who in the county government even knows so I can ask and find out.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Summer Vacation For Public Advice

An alert reader, noticing where we are in the month, asked me for an update from the MC Executive's citizen advisory committee - formally known as the Telecommunications Advisory Committee. The TAC meets on the third Wednesday of each month ... except:
  1. There are no TAC meetings in the summer, and
  2. 1. doesn't matter anyway but for different reasons then it thinks. (Hang in there. That sentence will make more sense soon.)
Summer TAC Meetings

At the last meeting, the TAC and the Cable Office agreed that nothing was happening that required TAC attention. (Rather ironic given the Verizon lawsuit announced just one week later.) But as long as I can remember, this peculiar practice occurs: The TAC is led by the Cable Office to believe that nothing is happening and TAC members happily concur that meetings will be poorly attended due to summer vacations anyway so by mutual agreement, the TAC schedules their next meeting 3 months hence - in September.

Yet every year, serious things churn throughout the summer. Last summer, the TAC recessed for the summer and only then did citizens find out about a hearing on Bill 7-05 (to extend the life of the Cable Compliance Commission) 5 days before the hearing. The year before, only in June did we see the final draft of the Executive's cable modem regulations (26-03AM) to be voted on by the Council before the next TAC meeting. And the summer of 2002, it was Bill 28-02 (which established the Cable Compliance Commission and led to the cable modem regs). Is citizen involvement really desired by the county - or does it simply want to pay lip service to the idea of citizen input?

And do TAC representatives really care about telecomm issues? Or are they just padding their resumes? It's a bad sign that the TAC representatives are all too happy to agree to take the summer off despite the history of what goes on around here. Good grief people! Is one night a month too much to ask?

Not That It Matters

Back to the question: Does the county want citizen input? An advisory committee? What for? A public hearing to consider the Verizon franchise? Why do we need to hear from the public? (Pop quiz for any MC officials: Over the last 10 years, which TAC recommendations has the Executive followed?)

Obviously, I have my doubts the Executive has spent a lot of time considering TAC testimony but at least the Executive has held public hearings for franchises. Alas, this seems to have stopped. The Executive didn't hold one for the RCN franchise renegotiation. And the Executive has not held one for Verizon. I recommend three public hearings:
  1. One now - to let the public weigh in on the lawsuit.
  2. One after the franchise application has been made available to the public for a suitable period of time - to give the Executive advice on the application.
  3. And one more - to comment on the Executive's proposal during Council consideration.
By failing to even file the franchise, the Executive prevents the public from seeing any parts of Verizon's application and subsequent filings. (Yes, I know Verizon has not officially submitted an application but this now appears to be a technical issue rather than one of intent.) During Comcast's last franchise negotation, the county released close to 1000 pages of documentation - a treasure trove of material (some of it quite embarrassing and a good predictor of Comcast's future behavior) that helped citizens learn about the company.

Finally, each hearing must be effectively communicated to the public with sufficient lead time. The county has a history of announcing hearings without enough advance notice to give citizens (or the TAC) enough time to prepare statements. And such meetings must be communicated effectively to the public. Why is there no email list for such announcements? Even the Division of Solid Waste Services has an email alert list to let the public know when they're going to reschedule pickups! Can't we get this kind of timely and reliable email communication with other parts of the Executive branch? Or is it only for garbage?

And the Executive branch is not alone in its poor communication skills. The County Council home page has long advertised that citizens can sign up for council agendas and packets. And I have signed up - several times! But I've never received one. I finally called up this week and spoke to a council staffer who said that she wondered if any of the hundreds of people who had subscribed would ever complain. Evidentally, it was well-known internally that there was no automated mechanism to provide what the council has been advertising!

What's Happened Recently

On July 11, a closed-door session was held by the Council's MFP committee to discuss strategy over the Verizon lawsuit. The County is allowed to have closed-door sessions when getting advice from their lawyers. Yet it is my understanding no members of the TAC were invited to give their advice or otherwise participate. This is unfortunate as the advice from the lawyers is likely to simply re-affirm the interests of the county government - a self-reinforcing cycle of self-interest with resulting non-progress.

On July 20, the county filed its response. I've only just seen it myself; however a quick glance shows that it attempts to refute all of Verizon's assertions. By the way, the original Verizon filing was not searchable. I've made available a searchable version. (When you generate PDF, please make it searchable!)

In the meantime, I encourage you to read the discussion at There has been some stimulating discussion of the lawsuit including comparisons with the franchises that Verizon has signed in neighboring jurisdictions and how these compare to the MC offers. One of the more surprising observations was the assertion that the Council advised the Executive that no cable-related legislation should be proposed before the next set of elections. If council members are too busy campaigning to do their job, I recommend they resign so that they can focus their attention on what is evidentally most important to them: their campaign.

More Notable Dates

On July 31 at 2pm, there will be the usual quarterly review of the franchisees: Comcast and RCN. Verizon is also invited pro forma. But based on the hyperbole being issued by both sides, I can't imagine how this will turn out. Bring popcorn. Settle back. No matter what, it should be entertaining. You can attend in person (7th floor of the County Council Building) or watch via County Cable Montgomery (channel 6) or streaming video - live or archived. Warning: the streaming video is very low resolution and the archive is usually not available for a day or two.

Although I've repeatedly said that Verizon has a significant advantage in the current situation, these MFP meetings generally keep the franchisees (and franchisee applicants) at a disadvantage. The councilmembers are in charge of the mike and can interrupt or cut off any speaker at whim. The council can bluster and posture and the other attendees have no recourse but to sit there and take it. Obsequiousness rules the day. Of course they can walk out or skip the meeting. That's been done, too, but I don't recommend it. Bottom line: Don't expect any kind of aggressiveness or legal maneuvering from Verizon here. This won't be the time for it.

On August 15 at 7pm, there will be a Candidate Forum for District 18 Legislators at the Kensington Town Hall (Armory Building). I bring this up because one of the candidates likely to participate is incumbent Delegate Jane Lawton who is also the Cable Administrator for Montgomery County.

Would this be the time to pose questions regarding the cable franchise? I don't recommend it. Jane is much too knowledgeable to be caught off-guard. She serves at the pleasure of Executive Duncan and she will faithfully represent his position, even if she personally doesn't agree. Nonetheless, it might still be worth watching her at the forum. She's very smart, experienced, and polished - plus, as an incumbent, she has a tremendous advantage over the other candidates.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Montgomery County Fights Back

In reaction to last Friday's lawsuit by Verizon, various MC politicians have declared that Verizon is the guilty party and that the county intends to vigorously defend itself. One such statement from a Gazette article:
"The county repeatedly expressed to Verizon and acted upon the county’s commitment to expedite the franchise agreement, but it takes two parties to negotiate," said Chief Administrative Officer Bruce F. Romer.
But it's clear that MC officials are in spin mode. Consider this comment from Councilmember Marilyn Praisner:
"They haven't submitted a franchise application," Praisner said, adding that when Verizon representatives appeared before her committee, she was told that the company would submit a franchise application, but so far that hasn't happened.

Praisner said that if Verizon didn't like the standard franchise agreement that other cable operators have signed, they could have red-lined the parts they didn't like, and submitted the changed version for negotiation, but she said the company hasn't done that, either.
But maybe it's not spin. Maybe the councilmember doesn't know the truth - that there have been extensive negotiations between Verizon and County Executive Doug Duncan.

Dear Councilmembers: MC and Verizon have been negotiating. Back in May of 2005, I reported that the county announced it had officially entered into negotiations with Verizon. Since then, the county has shared nothing publicly. Everything was secret - at least they tried to keep it secret. As an example, a few months ago, I reported some of the disagreements based on FCC filings. (See World's Apart.)

It's true that an application has not been filed but the reason why is not as simple as has been reported in the press. At a May 19 2005 hearing, the county specifically instructed Verizon not to file such an application until county officials had approved the principle terms. FCC filings confirm this. A history of the negotations can be found beginning on page 27 of Verizon's filing in the US District Court. (Thanks to JT, a Rockville citizen, for this link.)

At a February 2006 TAC meeting, the Advisory Committee was similarly informed that the Executive was unwilling to "file" the application - which would've resulted in sending it to the council for consideration, according to the Cable Office. (See 5th paragraph of Negotiations Going From None To Worse.) The filing step is indicated by the "Application Accepted for Filing" box in this flowchart.

Reading this narrative in Verizon's legal filing is almost as confusingly enjoyable as the Da Vinci Code. (I'm sure there's a dead body in here somewhere.) It recounts many meetings, discussions, proposals, and counter-proposals starting in May '05 to a final meeting in April '06 when the parties stopped communicating entirely. Ironically, while failing to cooperate with each other, both sides were sending filings to the FCC describing the inability to make progress. If you want justification for a national franchise bill, here it is. Montgomery County, Maryland: Poster child for the death of local franchising.

Specific Demands

By now you may have read some of the demands that Verizon is making and some of the demands that Verizon has claimed have been made by the county. I'm not going to go through all of these because it requires a better legal background than I have as well as knowledge that is currently buried only in the files of the two parties.

However, I will discuss a few examples to point out what I see as valid claims on both sides as well as misleading, incendiary, and in some cases, downright stupid language all around. (What's the legal term for stupid?) For example, Verizon claims that MC is asking for a franchise fee on all revenues. And the existing franchises do sound that way. They use phrases such as 5% of gross revenues without mentioning that certain things (e.g., internet service) are off the table. So Verizon could technically be correct that MC is "asking" for franchise fees on everything - but it's already settled law that Verizon doesn't have to pay such fees.

Some claims have more meat to them. For example, the claim that MC is requesting 65 PEG channels is based on MC's demand for 78Mhz (sufficient for 13 analog channels) worth of bandwidth. Verizon is restating this in the most damning way and without admitting that Comcast and RCN are already providing roughly the same thing already. It's particularly unfortunate because Verizon does have a good point that is obscured by its hyperbole - that using dedicated analog channels is archaic. Even worse, writing such language in the franchise is shortsighted. Even if Verizon decides to deliver PEGs that way today, it shouldn't have its hands tied tomorrow. Technology changes too rapidly. (Whether MC actually needs so many channels is a separate issue; Personally, I think it makes more sense to stream PEG programming on demand, perhaps via IPTV, and supply whatever connection or hardware is needed, gratis or at a nominal cost.)

This brings us to one of the biggest difficulties in the negotation - that Verizon is a different type of company with a different infrastructure than that of a traditional cable company. Whereas cable companies started with a cable system that has only recently incorporated other services, Verizon started with a telecomm system which only recently added "cable service" (video service would be a much better term, but that's history for you). And this colors the view of how much of the combined service can be regulated using traditional cable service regulation because local regulatory jurisdiction over a telecomm facility is allowed only "to the extent that such facility is used in the transmission of video programming directly to subscribers." (1984 Cable Act.) Must Verizon find that most of its traditional telephone service is now subject to regulation because it shares the same infrastructure as its cable service? How much is really shared? As a simple example, consider a customer who's cable service is improperly grounded - a safety issue that the county would normally investigate. Now consider his neighbor whose internet service is improperly grounded. The physical connections and risks are exactly the same and yet, the neighbor has no cable service. Does this mean Verizon isn't subject to the cable safety regulations?

In fact, this has been a dilemma for the county with Comcast as well. But it was easier to make the argument that all Comcast services were inherently cable-related at some level. Indeed, that's why Comcast claimed that the creation of MC's Cable Modem regulations would require no changes to their practices. Not only do they share the same plant, the same line technicians, but they share the same everything - all the way up to billing and marketing! With Verizon, this is not the case.

Needless to say, the county wants to treat Verizon exactly the same as Comcast and RCN with essentially the same franchise. Not surprisingly, Verizon won't swallow this. I'm sure the county recognizes this but yet is horrified with the idea of the alternatives:
  • Alternative 1: Different franchises would likely encourage Comcast and RCN to sue for unequal treatment.
  • Alternative 2: Renegotiating franchises with all 3 - Comcast, RCN, and Verizon - would be a nightmare.
The irony is that the county is absolutely right to require equal treatment. While I don't agree with all of MC's demands, there's little doubt that the differences between telecomms and cable companies are disappearing (or will as soon as the FCC lets them). In that sense, the county is doing the right thing. Alas, they're ahead of their time and thereby dooming us all to this massive quagmire in which we now find ourselves.

What to do? One way MC could resolve the situation would be to drop the demands that are objectionable to Verizon by also dropping them from the Comcast and RCN franchises. As an example, Comcast and RCN have lived with the customer service requirements on cable modems. But Verizon has objected to these same regulations. I used to feel strongly about the cable modem regulations but that was before Executive Duncan gutted them in 2003. What's left are either 1) superficial things like telephone answering time and 2) more essential things like "prompt service" requirements that, while valuable, might be sufficiently addressed by the reality of competition. Remember that the cable modem regulations were passed when Comcast was the de facto monopoly for most of MC. (Indeed, the low percentage of complaints in RCN areas are a good indication of the value of competition. Sadly, I predict that RCN will be a victim of Verizon's success.)

Oh, and the cable modem regulations include another class of items: 3) those that are knowingly ignored, such as county approval over the franchisee privacy polices and disclosure of all promos. Were I Verizon, I'd get the cable modem regulations thrown out on that basis alone. Wouldn't hurt to point out that that they're probably unenforceable anyway given their remarkably vague definitions. For instance, is it an interruption if I can surf the web but email is down? No one knows - the regulations never say what Cable Modem Service actually is!

Most recently, MC appears to have taken a different path, giving up the goal of franchise commonality and instead proposing different requirements. For example, one proposal by MC was for Verizon to provide 100 wireless hotspots around the county. (No mention was made how much it would cost residents to actually use the hotspots.) This was in lieu of traditional in-kind contributions afforded franchise authorities. However, the county doesn't need more of the traditional in-kind contributions, isn't entitled to them by law, nor is it entitled to demand different in-kind contributions - hotspots are simply not on the list of what a franchise authority is entitled to! MC also requested that Verizon cover attorney fees and other fees for handling and reviewing the franchise process - with no cap on those fees. The list of such demands goes on and it's pretty clear that these are excessive - a case of the county asking for something it has no right to except that it can because it has the final say on who gets an franchise.

Instead, what the county should be doing is cutting the demands for in-kind contributions from Comcast and RCN. Then, MC could fairly ask Verizon to shoulder the burden.

The Likely Future

If the case goes forward, I'll be amazed. On the one hand, I want it to go forward so that I can find out more details about what's been going on out of public view. (It drives me crazy when governments abuse their own processes to carry out decision-making in secret that was meant to be done in public view and with public participation. This alone is grounds for legal action.) On the other hand, I'd like this case to be settled so we can get the benefits of competition while avoiding the drawbacks of the pending national franchise bill. (Can't wait to start describing that!)

In the future, I'm confident that Verizon will get a franchise in Montgomery County. There is too much pressure for MC to resist. The citizens are very upset and rightfully so considering how much this is costing them - in legal fees as well as their monthly cable bills. And the lawsuit is a lose-lose suitation for MC. Even if MC wins, it loses. But it won't go that far. The telecomms are lobbying too heavily for the national franchise bill not to succeed before the lawsuit concludes. (On net neutrality alone, the telecomms have spent $9.1M to defeat it!) One way or the other, MC will get competition.