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 Alas, the briefing packet appears to be an outdated briefing packet for an earlier worksession from a week earlier. I didn't attend the Monday session in person so I was stuck trying to make sense using the out-of-date packet.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."

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