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.