Saturday, June 24, 2006

No Shows All Around

This week's Telecomm Advisory Committee meeting was lightly attended. The Verizon representative rumored to be there wasn't. A rep from RCN (aka StarPower) was officially given time on the agenda - and didn't show. And the two humiliated Comcast reps from last month didn't return.

And they might have been justified. Indeed, Jane Lawton was absent as well. As I understand it, she's officially back as the MC Cable Administrator but also still serving as a state delegate. The term was supposed to be over last month but the Governor wanted the entire Maryland General Assembly to stick around for awhile and try to address soaring energy rates. And her office reports that Jane will be running for her delegate position again. Since fall elections aren't that far away, it's only fair to wonder how much time she'll have to commit to cable issues during the campaign season.

One thing on Jane's mind is that her future may be more secure in Annapolis than in Montgomery County. Bills currently pending in Congress appear likely to strip away local cable regulation and pass it over to the FCC. Is that good? Well, it's good if you're concerned about obscene language. Regulating four-letter words on broadcast TV - the FCC has been good. But reining in soaring cable costs - not so good. And unless you can get a hundred thousand of your close friends to write to the FCC that your bill is wrong or your cable drop wasn't buried deep enough and was just cut by the landscapers, well, forget it.

The leading bill in Congress would nationalize the franchise system. The obvious benefit: Competition. According to Consumers Union, Americans who have a choice between two cable companies pay about 17% less on average. And cost is only one aspect that would likely improve. Being able to choose another provider (even if only one other choice) gives you a lot of power. All of a sudden, you're in control over who gets your hard-earned coin.

Is competition a total win? No. Although service may improve from competition, another concern is that the new bill contains no language forcing companies to provide service to everyone. If you live in a demographically-incorrect area, you may be out of luck. Well, you can move. Or band together with neighbors for community WiFi or community fiber. Hey, the local government may find a new role supporting these efforts! (Indeed, amendments to the bill support this idea.)

Sadly, the propaganda from both sides distorts the true advantages and disadvantages. For example, even traditional franchises have never provided guarantees of so-called universal coverage (a concept in and of itself of questionable merit). I take issue with claims of the Cable Office and its lobbying organization(s) as much as I take issue with the claims of the cables and the telecomms.

There are many other issues affected by these proposed bills (net neutrality being another world of distortion propaganda). I'm not going to get into them except to mention that the details in the bills are far from settled. It's been reported that there were over 200 amendments tacked on to the leading bill and god only knows what will happen once the bill goes into conference where legislators will add language never before seen by the public. From articles I've read in the Post, interested companies have sent hundreds of lobbyists to Capitol Hill and are spending millions of dollars per day pushing their interests on members of Congress.

Think Local

So what does this all mean locally? Well, the latest word from the Cable Office is that, once again, there has been no progress on a video franchise for Verizon in Montgomery County Maryland. Although no one is talking freely, it is apparent that nothing will happen locally until the bills in Congress either pass or die. And it seems pretty clear that the fighting will rage on for months. Bottom line: Unless MC and Verizon start talking, it will be at least a year before we see FIOS TV, even under a national franchise.

Curiously, the Cable Office had a meeting the following day (Thursday, June 22 '06) to which it invited the municipalities that MC normally represents in franchise negotations. According to the Cable Office, the meeting was to inform the municipalities of the status of the Verizon franchise. But why now - when there's been zero change in the status for months? Is it possible that some of the unhappy munis are negotiating with Verizon on the side, desparate to get around the county deadlock? If so, the county would surely like to squelch that before a domino effect completely undermines the county's position. Can any municipal representatives reading this offer their insights?

Vital This

As if to remind us that they are still a vital piece of the system, the Cable Office noted that:
  • Comcast complaints were up last month, primarily regarding exposed drops.
  • Comcast was out of compliance with respect to several different customer service measures and has thus been sent a warning as a prelude to a fine if they don't come back into compliance within the next quarter.
  • RCN was late with franchise fees so they will now owe late fees. As I recall, the same thing happened last year. Is it serious cash-flow problems at RCN or just utter incompetence in their finance department? Too bad - because the county received only 3 billing complaints from RCN subscribers for the entire month of May. That's it. No customer service complaints, no installation complaints, no marketing complaints. That's a good record.
I shouldn't be too hard on the Cable Office. I appreciate the fine work they do - and yet I'm also frustrated at the limited reach they have given the fees they collect. (Did I mention that language in the national bill will ensure that locals continue to get their 5% franchise fee?) For example, the Cable Office is great at investigating safety issues such as ungrounded drops but the Cable Office can't touch frustrations like the incompetence of the phone reps at Comcast and the inability to be able to speak to a knowledgeable supervisor. (At last month's meeting, one TAC member speculated that Comcast doesn't actually have supervisors. It's just an empty title so that the front-line reps can say that "There are no supervisors around now, but I'll have one call you back." Has anyone been called back by a supervisor? Ever?)

And there's nothing that local regulators can do about prices in the upper tiers and the creative games that Comcast plays in making packages that include channels that no one wants. As an example of this nonsense, last month Comcast introduced a new package: The Family Tier, nominally for child-safe TV watching. Let's be honest - the only child-safe TV watching is no TV watching. The true reason for Comcast's new package was to head off Congressional interest in forcing a la carte subscriptions. A la carte would allow people to subscribe to just the channels they want. But this is the last thing that video providers want to provide. They figure that by offering a few more packages, they can claim that they are providing people with choice. And so far, Congress appears to have gone along with this charade. Have any customers swallowed this nonsense and signed up for this tier?


Anonymous said...


I agree with most of what you said. The only thing I would like to add is that the bills are farther along in the process. Currently the House has already passed the Franchise bill by a large margin and the senate version is in full committee mark up. They had one session last Thursday and are scheduled for another on Tomorrow at 10:00. The committee said there were allot of titles to cover.

I expect that we could see this bill leave committee this week and go to the senate floor. My guess would be that it will definitely be voted on before summer recess and if it passes the senate could go to joint committee for true up between the two houses by the end of July.

The bill could stall there but I think there is enough muscle and desire for this to be finished before elections.

That being said the house bill has a provision that a franchise be granted or denied within one month of application. If that sticks you could have cable TV in MC before the end of the year. Lot of if's.

I think that Verizon will not come back to the MC table until they know how the National bill is going to play out. So I believe that you are correct and that there very well may be no progress for awhile. My guess is a min of 4 months (election time).

In case you want to see the committee notes 2nd from the bottom.

Thanks for the diligence. Please keep it up.

Chris in Kensington

Anonymous said...

Didn't Gaithersburg make their own deal directly with Comcast rather than working through the County? What are the advantages and disadvantages for them? Do Gaithersburg residents pay the same cable rates as residents in other parts of the County?