Sunday, February 12, 2006

How To Communicate Nothing

I Should Have Stayed In Bed

One qualification for being a council member must be an iron bladder. Those sessions are long. I got there an hour after the session began and I left a bit after noon - and the session still wasn't over! However, I did get there in time for the discussion of the cable plan and the Comcast/RCN/Verizon funfest.

The Plan

As I mentioned previously, the plan concerns the use of the franchise fees and the cable fund. The Plan's briefing packet is 22 pages long so I'm not even going to try to summarize it except to say that it's basically reasonable - in other words, I think the county government is spending the money pretty well. In some ways, the county is even a spendthrift.

That doesn't mean I agree with everything in the plan. For instance, I don't understand the obsession with running fiber to so many county facilities. Last year, I wondered why we laid fiber to an arts center which produces art, magnificent though it may be, that we are not allowed to redistribute. And fiber to the warehouse of the Dept of Liquor Control? (MC's FiberNet gang didn't even stay for the whole meeting - when called to testify, they were long gone.)

Also on this year's list is the initial repayment of funds that the Executive borrowed for general government operations. But that repayment is without interest. This causes a devaluation of the fund, with the county general fund reaping the difference. I have long considered this an inappropriate use of the cable fund - because it, in essence, launders monies from the cable fund. If we're going to commingle the two funds in this way, why bother having a separate cable fund in the first place?

Oh and we'll be doing it again - the FY06 plan lends $3.87 million for a traffic management project - again, to be repaid without interest. I guess we like to pay taxes. (And don't try to tell me the franchise fee is not a tax!)

PS: The county figured out a new way this year to get more money in the plan. Tower applications are now to be taxed. Is that reasonable? Who can tell? Left unaddressed was whether the fees were in line with the expense of the management of the process. (Council staff raised the question in the briefing packet, however none of the council sought the answer. Hmm.)

Also on the list: renovations and improvements to council facilities, such as the video equipment in the council meeting rooms. I'm sending in a request to have them improve the video quality of the government channel. There's a reason I attend in person!

And would it be so hard to provide wireless access in these rooms? What's a wireless router cost these days ... $35? Shucks, I'll give them my old one. The signal only has to cover the space of a conference room so even 5 year-old equipment ought to suffice.

The Unplan

The Unplan: From now on, that's how I should refer to the quarterly review of Comcast, RCN, and the ever-just-beyond-our-reach Verizon franchise. "The Unplan" is shorter. Evocative, too.

First things first. The Cable Office had some good words for Comcast. They're talking to each other again. And Comcast's complaint levels are down - way down - by 70%! Kudos all around. Ok, enough kudos. Now let's recall how high complaint levels were in the previous quarter. There were 1042 complaints to the Cable Office in the 3rd quarter. That was an all-time high. So it's hard to imagine that complaints could not go down! Indeed, the new numbers are not that low. 310 complaints in the final quarter. In addition, there was some question over whether Comcast was actually in compliance with the franchise. (Acting Cable Administrator Amy Wilson said yes, Council Analyst Sonya Healy said no.)

At the previous MFP hearing, Comcast blamed Verizon for the high complaint numbers - and although our inspectors have agreed to an extent, Comcast also got stung by their own willingness to ignore real facts - for instance, that 150 complaints were just about billing. (Comcast billing errors caused by Verizon? Not likely!) However, Verizon did report that they've changed some practices that might well have lowered the impact on Comcast - including using a "soft dig" process and the county agreed that there were fewer complaints about Verizon as well. Good news.

But in an absolute sense, there are still too many Comcast problems. The Montgomery County inspectors found 1629 construction violations in the 4th quarter, a 2% increase from the 3rd quarter and a whopping 28% increase from the same quarter the previous year. How to explain an increase in violations at the same time as a decrease in customer complaints? Angela Lee's (Regional Director of Government Affairs for Comcast) theory was the spectacularly vague "Some of the processes that we've put into place, we're starting to see the fruits of our labor." My theory is that Comcast has changed its procedures to make more use of quick temporary fixes where in the past they would've taken more time to do permanent fixes - the rationale being that a lot of violations are better than a lot of unhappy customers.

As long as such violations don't represent hazardous situations and citizens can put up with the annoyance of drops laying over driveways and down swales, I can live with that. Of course, I don't like paying a premium price for that level of service but competition may yet well address that.

It is ironic that Marilyn Praisner appeared to be pleased that the number of complaints were high enough to justify continuing to keep local control over the franchise (an issue currently being debated in Congress). But I'd prefer she use a different reason: that the state and the fed don't appear to show an interest in effective regulation.

Lastly, after months of stonewalling (and the county finally making a financial threat), Comcast provided the customer service statistics for their internet service. Sonya noted that Comcast provided figures at 5pm the day before so there was not time for analysis of the figures. I don't know why Comcast fought this for so long. The numbers don't represent any serious competitive exposure - which is what they've claimed for so long. RCN has never had a problem providing the numbers.

Update On The Verizon Franchise

Representing Verizon, Briana Gowing (Verizon VP for External Affairs) made her first appearance before the MFP committee. Briana provided an update on the status of the video franchise. It was, to be polite, lacking in detail.
At one point it looked like we are at a little bit of a standstill. But we are very optimistic that we can work with the county executive's office and get a series of scheduled meetings going and work together and I'd really like to come before you next time and have an agreement for you to look at.
Yep. That was it. How could the council accept this non-report? Beats me. But they did.

In conversation I had a week earlier with Briana, she described one of the bigger stumbling blocks - that Verizon didn't want to be subject to any internet regulation, alluding to the customer service requirements required in the Montgomery County Code for cable modem providers. Verizon is viewed as a "cable" provider for the purpose of providing video service. However, it might be possible for them to get a ruling that they are not a provider of cable modem service. Indeed, I am not aware of that term being defined anywhere in such a way that would cover Verizon's internet deployment. (Indeed, when the Executive put forth his cable modem regulations, I responded with a letter that the regulations were meaningless without a definition of such a service. The council passed it despite my warning.)

So I don't know how the Executive will work out this issue. And it is likely that Verizon also feels that it should receive other breaks given that they are starting from zero subscribers with an entrenched and savvy competitor. After all, RCN has been given breaks. And Verizon has been given breaks in other localities where franchises have been signed. We should certainly entertain similar breaks in order to spur meaningful competition. Should MC's internet regs be rolled back entirely? Public hearing anyone? (The Exec gave Comcast a public hearing prior to the issuance of their franchise. Will he ever give one to Verizon?)

Rockville - Can You Hear Me Now?

Even more curious than the franchise status "non-report" was a discussion of an outage affecting part of Rockville the previous week.

Linda Moran (Council Support Specialist in the Rockville City Manager's Office) gave a lengthy statement that at first left me with the impression that Verizon had badly dropped the ball. To paraphrase Linda: Verizon couldn't say exactly what the problem was, exactly who was affected, exactly when service would be restored, etc. It sounded pretty bad, giving the distinct impression that Verizon had serious problems.

But there were too many holes in her testimony; As I sat there listening, I was struck by how incomplete it was - how she rambled all over the place, omitting all sorts of basic facts and painting a very one-sided picture of things.

Briana then apologized profusely in a style that I found to be equally rambling. I sat there wondering if anyone from Verizon should have even apologized in the first place, except perhaps for sending an uninformed VP who seemingly hadn't even planned the apology until it came tumbling out.

So what was the problem that cut off service to 700 customers for days? I still don't know. No one seemed to have a clue. And no one connected the dots. For instance, Linda said that Verizon sent an email announcing the outage to a Rockville City employee who wasn't even there. Briana said that Verizon spoke to a Rockville City employee who left to tend to a sick child without telling anyone else the news of the outage.

That was just one example of dozens of points that could easily have been clarified. Indeed, Linda said that she made contact with Briana soon after she learned of the outage, described how helpful Briana had been, and yet here we were sitting, a week later, and the two of them still weren't able to coherently describe what had happened. I sat there shaking my head at the futility of such a discussion. Had I been sitting on the council, I would've asked both to leave and not to return until they had a prepared timeline that indicated all relevant dates/times and fully identified all people involved and what each one had done.

One point Briana made was a good one - that they need backup communication mechanisms and even backup-for-the-backup mechanisms. But it was hard to tell if she was referring to the Verizon repair crews or whether she was referring to the failure to get some responsible behavior from the Rockville City manager's office. In either case, I would like a more personal approach. If my landline is out, Verizon currently has no way of getting in contact with me short of sending someone to my front door. I don't expect that. I don't even want that. Instead, I would be happy to give Verizon my email address and cell phone number if it would help them contact me during outages.

The same goes for Comcast. I had a brief discussion with a Comcast VP afterward during which he described how Comcast would never have had such problems. But Comcast doesn't contact me either when there is an outage in my area.

Here's what we need, folks. We need for you to be able to ...
  • list outage reports on your web pages
  • send outage reports to our phones
  • send outage reports to our email
  • send outage reports to our pagers
... and if we do call up with an address, you should be able to tell us if there are any problems in the neighborhood before asking us to start powercycling our equipment.

Each of these reports should be done on an address-specific basis or as geographically specific as possible. And it should be reasonably configurable. For instance, some people don't want want to be phoned after 11pm. Others won't want to be phoned at all.

Montgomery County could get involved in this as well. MC's lets residents register their cell phones, pagers, and email addresses for emergency reports but fails to associate them with specific street addresses. So would MC's alert system be satisfactory in an outage similar to the one Verizon just experienced? Will MC add geographical functionality in the future? Is any of this stuff really that hard?

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