Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Upcoming MFP Meeting

The Montgomery County Council's MFP Committee reviews the performance of its franchisees Comcast and RCN (nee Starpower) every three months. It's that time again: February 9, 2006. The review is the 4th item on a slate that begins at 9am so 10am or even 11am might be a more accurate starting time. Reservations are not required although seating is limited. (I've stood through some of these.)

I plan on attending. You can catch it on channel 6 if you have cable TV. If you don't have cable, you can get it streamed live (or later via archive) from the County Cable Montgomery channel web page. Warning: the CCM stream/archive is low resolution; so much so that people's faces cannot even be recognized. (And although titles are superimposed beneath speakers, the titles are unreadable as well, sigh.) But the sound quality is ok so if you just want to let it run in the background and listen while you work on something else, it's sufficient.

Is Anything Expected?

I have no idea if anything will happen at this meeting - no preliminary notes have been released - no agenda has been released. Strange. Indeed, at the last meeting, MFP Chair Marilyn Praisner orally admonished Cable Administrator Jane Lawton for not providing her briefing in writing ahead of time. But the chair may be frustrated again as Jane is temporarily away serving as a delegate in Annapolis. (Talk about your feeble excuses!) The county cable administrator duties are temporarily being fulfilled by Amy Wilson. Good luck on Thursday Amy!

What about the council briefing packet? The Council staffers are usually very good about sending briefing packets early. So maybe there's something else holding things up, oh, say, last minute Verizon negotiations? Or perhaps Comcast is trying to convince the county not to issue fines for failure to provide data that the county needs to enforce the customer service regulations for their customer service - something they were warned about at the last MFP meeting.

As I mentioned earlier, no one seems to be talking about the Verizon franchise issues publicly. One cable office representative even suggested Verizon might not come to the committee meeting. Last year, Comcast even stopped sending representatives to the meetings for a time. And although the Comcast reps have returned (albeit with new faces), at just the last MFP meeting, Jane mentioned that she was not getting her phone calls returned from Comcast. This inability of the county and the various companies to communicate is quite disturbing, suggesting that progress is taking a back seat to personalities and legal/political games - with citizens the losers.

And if they are communicating, the public is certainly being kept in the dark. (I never did get an answer to my question to the Executive.) I was further reminded of this veil of darkness by other items on the same MFP slate. Specifically, three companies have applied for access to the rights-of-way to install communications equipment (e.g., fiber, antennas). Part of the franchise application requires that the public be given notice and an opportunity to raise concerns.

Specifically, section 49-11 of the County Code says:
The application for such franchise or right shall be published by the applicant once a week for three (3) successive weeks in one (1) or more newspapers published in the county and having general circulation ...
If any objection to the granting of the franchise is made by any person interested therein, either as a taxpayer or as one whose property rights are involved, and filed in writing with the county executive within ten (10) days after the last notice appears a hearing shall be held
In each case, notice was provided by a classified in the Washington Examiner. Now perhaps I'm not living on the right side of the tracks because I don't get the Examiner, I know of few people who do, and the Examiner web pages don't explain where it can be purchased. So who gets the Examiner? The Examiner appears to be given to a small select group of people. The Examiner says only that it reaches half of the top one-third income households and only in zip codes with the greatest number of households with adults 25-54 and household incomes over $75,000.

To me, a newspaper with only a 16% circulation and only in demographically-correct zip codes doesn't sound like it fits the description of a newspaper of general circulation and this is just one more example of the county allowing behavior that discourages any kind of informed populace. (And on a technical note, the Examiner isn't published in Montgomery County. So not only is the spirit of the law being violated but so is the literal text of it by several measures.)

Bottom line: I don't know if there are any issues with this three franchise applications - because I haven't even seen the applications before! Has anyone besides the County Executive? Will it surprise anyone to learn that the Executive received zero comments on any of these three franchise applications? That's the basis on which the Executive declared it unnecessary to have public hearings.

I recommend the county make franchise applications a wee bit more visible. Since they're already on file in the cable office, why not have them appear on the cable office website? Even better, why not have them sent to a mail list. The county government has gobs of mail lists for citizens - there is even one for trash and recycling announcements (which I actually find quite informative)! So why not a list for this or anything telecom related. The county council packets and the cable office reports should also be posted in this way. (Cable Office reports should also be available online.)

Cable Plan

Also on the MFP slate is item 3 "Cable Television and Communications Plan". The most interesting part of the plan is what the county is doing with the $8 million or so received annually from franchise fees - plus whatever is in the "cable fund" (leftover from previous years and grants from the franchisees). Before you start submitting ideas - keep in mind that cable franchise fees are required to be spent on cable-related projects (franchise administration, CCM, etc). Oh, and you can be assured that they pretty much have dibs on every last dollar already. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be scrutinized closely.

Last Minute News Flash

As I put the finishing touches on today's blog, I just received word (thanks JT!) that the council briefing notes for the MFP session were just made available. I haven't read them yet but in this link, JT makes the following preliminary observations:
Comcast still hasn't submitted the summer FCC proofs, they didn't do so well on the FCC monitor tests, and they still haven't figured out how to properly ground a drop, but they've made some significant improvements. For example, the average time to correct a problem serious enough to be classified as an "alert" has dropped to 22 days. Of course, the franchise agreement requires "alerts" to be corrected within 7 days, but an average of 22 days (or even 50 days, like Q3) isn't bad enough to get fined or anything.

Regarding Comcast's refusal to comply with our cable modem customer service standards for the entire year, the county issued a "notice of violation" and threatened "liquidated damages".
More info to come soon. See you at the MFP meeting!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update. I won't be at the meeting, but look forward to hearing what goes on (if anything).

Regarding the examiner: a copy shows up on my lawn every once in a while. It seems arbitrary. I also get the post and figured that's how I get on the examiner list. I tried to read an article in the examiner once and think I dropped about 10 IQ points in the process. It's not just drivel, it's the cliff notes version of drivel. I guess the post thinks that "top income" folks need things dumbed down for 'em or something. :)

A waste of resources, if you ask me. Next time I get one, I'll save it for you rather than dumping it in the recycling bin on my way into the house.

Anonymous said...

With all respect, your conspiracy theory doesn't hold much water with me. I've delt with Comcast in Maryland and I can tell you if anyone is behind any delays, it is them.

Just try to call them for service -- you'll see how slow they are.