Why I love Comcast, Verizon, the FCC, and everyone else.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Rockville Debate

On Monday, October 22, 2007, I attended a debate among the candidates for mayor and council of Rockville, Maryland. I was curious if fresh blood might be the solution to breaking the logjam presently preventing Rockville citizens from getting Verizon FIOS internet and TV. Given the upcoming November 6 election, this may be an opportunity to effect change by voting.

Before going on, let me clarify that that when I say Rockville, I'm referring to the City of Rockville. It is only in the city limits that residents have been unable to get FIOS. (Outside Rockville, county residents are of course still at the mercy of Verizon's installation schedule but that's a separate issue.)

I don't avidly watch Rockville politics but I have attended council meetings on occasion so I'm familiar with how interesting (to put it politely) their behavior can be. A candidate debate seemed to promise an evening even more entertaining than professional wrestling - with an equal amount of simulated grappling.

Although it was called a debate, it was nothing close. Organized by the Rockville Chamber of Commerce and intended to focus on business interests, 14 candidates stood on stage, each starting with a two-minute position spiel. Questions were then doled out to each candidate round-robin. They had 90 seconds to answer their respective questions. This was repeated again with an additional round of questions. So although questions were solicited from the audience (and I submitted one about Verizon), there was no debate and no opportunity for followup or rebuttal.

My question: Please address why the city has been unable to come to terms with Verizon for FIOS internet and TV service and how your approach would differ.

Although only two candidates got the question on-air, I did also speak to several other candidates afterward and put the question to them as well. All in all, I was disappointed by the responses - only one candidate expressed any grasp of the details of the issue - and even his grasp was tenuous, seemingly accepting of a large portion of the current position held by Larry Giammo, Mayor of Rockville. The best that could be said was that the candidates understood that it was a valid issue.

What I'd like to do at this point is contact all the candidates, give them time to look into the issue and provide their position. We'll then be able to compare them.

For candidates who would like a little background, it will be helpful to read what I wrote earlier about the fee situation.

Besides fees, the other big issue appears to be the provisioning schedule. I have never addressed the schedule before but I understand that the Mayor is still insisting on 100% coverage in 3 years. To be blunt, Rockville is simply wrong to demand this. By comparison, the MC franchise provides staged service areas which factor in density and other issues. That seems much more reasonable.

If Verizon was being granted monopoly status, I would make a different argument but since Verizon is entering the field as a competitor and since Rockville has done little but postured for coming on two years now, Rockville has little basis for its schedule demands. Frankly, if Verizon stuck Rockville at the end of their current schedule, it would be justified. But it's worth looking at Verizon's county-wide schedule that was created during the county-wide negotiation. Notice that Rockville falls in what's termed the Middle Service Area.

According to the MC franchise, the middle service area is provisioned as follows:
3.1.2. Middle Service Area: In the Middle Service Area, the Franchisee shall offer Cable Service to significant numbers of Subscribers in residential areas within three (3) years of the Effective Date of this Franchise, to at least fifty percent (50%) of the residential areas within the Middle Service Area within four (4) years of the Effective Date of this Franchise, and to all residences within the Middle Service Area at which such service is requested within five (5) years ofthe Effective Date of this Franchise, except as specified in Section 3.2. If Franchisee is unable to reach agreement with the City of Rockville to obtain construction permits for the FTTP network under reasonable terms and conditions, as determined by Franchisee, by December 31, 2007, these timeframes shall not apply to Franchisee's provision of Cable Service to residences served by Franchisee's Rockville and Montrose wire centers. Instead, Franchisee shall offer Cable Service to all residences served by the Rockville and Montrose wire centers at which such service is requested within four (4) years of obtaining construction permits for the FTTP network from the City of Rockville, except as specified in Section 3.2.
The referenced section 3.2 deals with density requirements and related issues as I mentioned earlier.

Go ahead and attach a comment to the blog (or email me) if I've overlooked any related issues that the candidates should also address. At the end of the week, I'll contact each candidate for a response.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hammer This

Please stop sending me links to the hammer lady! Yes, I know about it. I was even tempted to write about it. But I think there's little to add that hasn't been said already. 450 people posted comments to the Washington Post article about it! How much more is there to say?

For those of you that still haven't heard the story, Mona Shaw, 75, of Manassas VA, a kindly grandmother type right out of central casting, was so mistreated by Comcast - starting with a missed appointment, a botched install, a total loss of service, and finally ending with abuse-in-person at the local Comcast office - that she reached her breaking point and proceeded to go home and return with a hammer to dispense justice, outraged-grandmother style.

Here's a link to the full article by Neely Tucker, Washington Post Staff Writer.

The reporter bent over backward to give equal time to Comcast. In the article, Beth Bacha, a Comcast VP, noted that Comcast has more than 25 million customers, "the overwhelming majority of which are very satistified with their service."

I'd love to see the evidence of that. Their customer base is not that evidence given that many Comcast subscribers live in non-competitive areas. And for customers fortunate enough to live in a competitive area, Comcast may be having a very tough time - especially if my own experience is any guide.

Recently a member of my own community posted a note to our neighborhood mail list. She described how she had been experiencing Comcast outages for two weeks and wanted to know whether other neighbors had been experiencing similar problems.

Ten people replied. (I didn't participate in the discussion - I just watched.) Nine said they had switched to Verizon FIOS and doing so was very easy. Repeatedly, people said FIOS TV and Internet were rock solid using terms like "great", "never a problem", "couldn't be happier" and, from one person, "Switch to FIOS now! Run, run from Comcast."

Oh, the tenth person? He said he was fed up with Comcast and was about to switch. Bottom line: Not one person defended Comcast or admitted to remaining a Comcast customer.

This is remarkable - not just because Comcast has had the market to themselves for so long but because they've had years to work out problems in their operations. And from the statements I hear around the neighborhood and in newspaper articles like the hammer lady, Comcast has done so badly that people are desperate to try anyone else - even at a higher price.

Needless to say, Verizon is finding fertile ground here and, for some people, offering cheaper bottom line prices with faster service to boot. It's hard to see a rosy future for Comcast right now. Or any future.

It all depends on Verizon. While Verizon has already screwed up in the past (poorly trained subcontractors, for example), people appear willing to accept mistakes if they're corrected and if the end result is better.

Verizon has a golden opportunity - a market that already exists and is hungering for an alternative. Why Verizon even bothers to spend money on advertising is beyond me. All Verizon needs to do is have neighbors do its advertising for it. That's certainly what's happening where I live. (PS: Verizon, stop sending me brochures for FIOS!)

As for Comcast, they need to get the message. They've spent a ton of money upgrading their system and making it more robust. But it still doesn't appear to be as robust as Verizon's. And Comcast needs to do something about how they interact with their customers. Donating money to public events and charities isn't what makes customers happy. (Hey, they're great at something, right?)

I hate to write Comcast off entirely. If we've learned anything, we've learned that we need competition in the marketplace. We need both Comcast and Verizon to prosper. Are you listening Comcast?