Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Corporate Responsibility

I am a loyal Comcast customer. Couple reasons. I would like to get FiOS, but I don’t want my twisted copper land line stripped out of my house and so far, Verizon isn’t offering an alternative. Also I just like their commercials, they’re funny.

It pleases me to note that Comcast, like all the other cable operators, is taking the digital transition seriously and providing their customers with all the latest information, like this instruction from their website for those who have analog televisions:

Apply for coupons at http://www.dtv2009.gov/.
Wait for coupons to arrive in the mail.
Take coupons to retailer.
Choose and purchase converter(s).
May need to purchase new antenna(s).
Connect a converter to each TV.
Connect antenna each converter. (sic)
Test all channels to ensure reception (digital reception may be different than analog).

I like the “wait for coupons to arrive in the mail” advice. We wouldn’t want Pennsylvania Avenue clogged up with people standing outside the National Telecommunications and Information Administration waiting for the coupon distribution.

Comcast provides a second option and that is to buy a digital television. Here’s their advice:

Choose and purchase new TV(s).
May need to purchase new antenna(s).
Install new TV in each location.
Connect antenna each new TV. (sic again)
Test all channels to ensure reception (digital reception may be different than analog).

Notice how they tell you to test all the channels because digital reception may be different than analog? And for each option, getting the converter or buying a new TV, Comcast reminds the reader “if you choose this option, make sure you plan for EVERY TV in your home.” Thank goodness for this tidbit, I don’t want to miss House just because my husband is watching football.

But wait! There’s a third option. “Subscribe to Pay TV Service.” And if you do, here’s what you need to know:

Comcast customers: You’re ready already. You don’t need to do a thing.
With one phone call to 1-800-COMCAST, we’ll take care of every TV in your home. Call Comcast and we’ll handle every TV for you.
Installation service available, no hassles.
No antennas or set-top equipment required.

Voila! No hassles, no antennas or set-top equipment required. And if you hurry, you can get Limited Basic Cable for $10 per month for 12 whole months! Yeah! Comcast saves the day. Yippee! For just $10 bucks a month every antiquated analog owner will get the Basic channels, that’s 15 channels, to include local broadcast, PBS, CSpan, the access channels and plenty of shopping.

But wait! According to a recent report out of Seattle, those people who have or buy Expanded Basic and have an analog TV will need a converter box to get channels 30 through 80. And this is where it gets confusing. Comcast will let people use 3 boxes for free, two little ones and then a larger digital box with a programming guide. Additional little boxes will cost $1.99 a month but there was nothing about the cost of additional larger boxes. And there was nothing in the report about what the “rush” for boxes and technicians will look like in the next 60 days.

Comcast should probably change its website to let people know that if they are on Expanded Basic and they have an old set, they need to set up an appointment for the boxes.

And maybe Comcast needs to let some access stations know that they won’t be on good old fashioned Basic anymore. I sent out an email to find out how many access stations are in the 30-80 channel range (so many on the Comcast systems are up at the 90’s these days). Out of 17 responses, 6 access centers reported a channel number between 30-80, which means those Expanded Basic customers won’t receive the access channels without the box and Limited Basic customers won’t receive them at all. So there must be some plan for re-shuffling the access channels in that 30-80 range, but so far the access centers aren’t privy to it. Hey Comcast, there’s only 60+ days left until the transition, you might want to send out a memo.

I have been trying for sometime to nail down the definition of Basic service and luckily Comcast has just provided that definition. It is channels 2-29 and channels above 80 (to about 99). But what’s more intriguing is that if Comcast is doing this we know the other cable operators are going to do it but so far not a peep from the other guys. Are we to assume that none of the other cable operators have PEG channels in the 30-80 range? And at what point will all the channels be digitized and even the most Basic customers will need a box? And are there really that many boxes available?

Yes, the digital transition has been coming for so long we’re all a little sick of hearing about it. Cable has done a good job of positioning itself as the answer but now we know that’s only sorta true. I look forward to February 18, 2009. It should be a dilly of a day.

In case you haven't seen this...my favorite:

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Pick Me! Pick Me!

Most of us had that experience in grammar school, the being “picked” for the team experience. When it came to softball, I usually was last on the pick list along with the girl with the coke bottle glasses and buck teeth. However when it came to volleyball, not only was I a premium pick, I usually was captain because I was a volleyball diva on steroids. Give me the set-up and I delivered a vicious spike. Bam!

It is with great wonder and some amusement that I watch the conversations on the various listservs about who President-Elect Obama is going to appoint to the FCC. So much for hope and change. And why would any grown up think that electing a Democrat was the formula for any change when it comes to telecommunications? Paleeze people! Have we learned nothing? Bobby Rush gets a million bucks for his community center from SBC. The Democratic Party in California lead by Fabian Nunez receives a $4 million check from at&t after passing statewide video franchising. Does anybody remember the reign of Bill Kennard as FCC chair? When it came to PEG he was as useless as a boar with female characteristics. I can go state by state (and I have by the way) and show how Democrats led the charge to pass statewide/state-issued franchising laws.

Politics 101: When it comes to telecommunications there is no red or blue, there is only green.

Case in point, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Comcast’s own David L. Cohen had a single soiree at his home in Philly and raised $6.1 million for Obama and the Democratic Party. That must have been some good pate. Now pundits and politicos are speculating that it won’t have any effect on Obama’s decision making and appointments. Even though Pennsylvania Governor Rendell[1] failed to get Cohen appointed chief of staff there are still plenty of plums to be had for Cohen in the Obamastration. And if you don’t believe that I’ll be happy to explain what a turnip truck is.

All of this has made me turn to prayer.

Floating around is the name Julia Johnson. I don’t believe I’ve met the woman and I’m sure she’s perfectly nice. However her leadership of the Astroturf group, Video Access Alliance, should make us all squirm. She championed the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act. Remember that peccadillo? The nationalization of video franchising? The end run attempt by at&t and Verizon to get around local franchising? It failed but that didn’t stop at&t and Verizon from greasing Johnson's wallet with a few greenbacks.

We have endured eight long years of having an FCC unresponsive to the local communities or consumers for that matter. It has been an FCC more consumed with Janet Jackson’s boobies than what is actually good for communications or the American people. We simply cannot take another eight years of the same. If we don’t get another Copps or Adelstein appointed we might as well have voted for the other guy and been done with it.

So I nominate myself.

Here’s why. First, I really don’t give a crap about money. I even have an award on my wall given to me by the Philadelphia PEG activists called the “Not In It For the Money” award. Second, I don’t like smarmy, slick, thousand dollar suit guys who do that fake smiling thing while they actually are screwing you. Third, almost every thought in my head eventually comes roaring out of my mouth. Fourth, I really do hate the cable industry. Fifth, I don’t think that cell tower companies should be able to just place their ugly cell towers anywhere they want. Sixth, I believe the government should do broadband deployment because the free market system has done such a lousy job of it. Seventh, I believe in media democracy. Eighth, I don't care if you think you are important you have to earn my respect. Ninth, I’m a lot more fun than most of the people I have met in Washington. I could go on and on about why I am the perfect choice for the next FCC Commissioner, but I do need to retain a modicum of modesty.

I urge you to call, write or email, your representatives today and let them know that Bunnie Riedel should be the next FCC Commissioner. I’ll be setting up a website soon to take small donations for my campaign; cash, check or credit card. Send me to Washington and I guarantee you there will be “change.” You can count on it.

[1] Do we all remember that Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania did everything in his power to prevent Public access in Philly when he was mayor?

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

More Verminators!

On the eve of a Congressional hearing regarding what has happened to Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access channels since the passage of statewide or state issued franchise legislation, it is heartening to note that the cable and telecom industries (and the FCC) have severely overplayed their hand. Tomorrow, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government will hear a laundry list of harms done to PEG in what appears to be an industry-wide effort to bury and destroy these local channels. An effort that was spawned by the FCC’s First and Second Report and Order on Video Franchising and the nineteen states that passed the state legislation. These harms come at a time when Congress and the American people are acutely sensitive to media consolidation and the loss of localism.

Unfortunately I can’t be at the hearing because of a previous commitment, so I will now imagine how it will go.

The Chairman of the Subcommittee, Representative Jose E. Serrano (16th District, New York) will gavel the meeting to order then proceed to call on witnesses. First, Monica Desai, Chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau.

Serrano: Ms. Desai, when the FCC considered its First Report and Order on Video Franchising, how many comments on the proceeding did the FCC receive?

Desai: Uh, 4,424 sir.

Serrano: And of those, how many were from individuals?

Desai: Uh, 3,771 sir.

Serrano: How many of those individual comments did you cite in the Report and Order?

Desai: Uh, none sir.

Serrano: How many local franchising authorities commented?

Desai: Uh, 430 sir.

Serrano: How many of those local franchising authority comments were cited?

Desai: 23% of all our citations were from comments submitted by local franchising authorities, sir.

Serrano: How many comments did you receive from the cable and telephone companies?

Desai: We received 26 comments from the cable companies and 23 comments from the telephone companies, sir.

Serrano: How many of those cable and telephone comments were cited in the Order?

Desai: 77% of all our citations were from comments submitted by cable and telephone companies, sir.

Serrano: So in other words, are you saying that even though less than 1% of all comments regarding the First Report and Order were tendered by the industry, the Commission cited them 77% of the time and relied on those industry comments to render its decision, a decision I would remind you, that has fundamentally turned the Communications Act on its head?

Desai: Those people wanted at&t and Verizon to build them an Italian Ice Stand for God’s sake! They wanted water parks with sea monster rides! They were demanding prescription drug coverage for every man, woman and child, regardless of income! They wanted a chicken in every pot! It was unbearable, beyond the pale, above the majority of the Commissioners’ pay grades…uh, sir!

Next, I imagine Serrano will call on Mr. Howard Symons, from Mintz ,Levin, Cohn, Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, P.C.

Serrano: Mr. Symons can you explain why Comcast shut down five PEG access channels in Indiana after statewide franchising was passed even though the Indiana law was clear that the municipalities were to receive the same number of channels and the same level of funding as was in place before statewide franchising?

Symons: Because they can.

Serrano: Mr. Symons can you explain why Comcast, Brighthouse, Charter and Cablevision have slammed PEG channels off the Basic tier and into the digital tier, requiring subscribers to have to rent additional equipment in order to receive them even though federal legislation provides that PEG channels are to be carried on the Basic tier?

Symons: Because they can.

Serrano: Mr. Symons can you explain why Cablevision will be slamming PEG off the Basic tier in New York state even though there is an explicit New York law that requires PEG channels to be carried on the lowest tier of service, therefore Cablevision will be breaking the law in New York?

Symons: Because they can.

Serrano: Can you explain why at&t slams all PEG channels in a region into the single channel 99, in which a subscriber has to wade through several menus to get the channel and once they do the resolution on the channel is 480 x 480, not much better than a cell phone, and they don’t provide closed captioning or emergency alert messages on those channels?

Symons: I am not here to speak for at&t, but if I were…it’s because they can.

Serrano: Mr. Symons can you explain to me why there is a wide-spread concerted effort on the part of the industry to destroy PEG channels at a time when there is a severe loss of any kind of localism and unprecedented media consolidation?

Symons: I can’t speak for the whole industry but I do know that subscribers want more shopping channels, they want more ESPN, they want more reality channels, more Smack-Down, more wife-swap, more mixed marshal arts, more Hannah Montana, more Entertainment Tonight, more real estate channels, more Little House on the Prairie re-runs, more Ninja Warrior, more Florence Henderson, more Ab-Busters, more Judge Karen and Judge Hatchett, more Malibu Pilates, more Verminators…subscribers are insatiable gluttons for trash television and the mission of the cable and video industry is to make sure none of them, from cradle to grave, will have to go to bed hungry!

I have no doubt emotions will run high in the hearing room and back pedaling will be the sport of the day. Granted, Monica Desai didn’t make the decisions in the First or Second Report and Order and certainly Howard Symons does not run Comcast or the other cable companies, but the “industry” is drunk with the power that the FCC brewed and the state legislatures served up cold. They forgot that those PEG channels are watched by the communities in which they reside. They forgot that more than one Congressperson uses PEG channels to communicate with their constituents. They also forgot that it was Congress itself, lo so many years ago, that mid-wifed PEG channels into existence through the Cable Act. And the industry, as well as the FCC, has shown a unique deafness in the debate on media consolidation, a debate equally engaged in by Democrats and Republicans.

I would advise that one must always be careful not to gloat or overplay one’s hand when what one wanted is handed to them on a silver platter by slick politicians or misguided appointed officials. There are only so many Aces in a deck and at some point you will run out.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

The Bottom Line

I am a huge fan of persistence. There’s always more than one way to approach an issue and usually more than one way to reach a solution. But I have to take my hat off to at&t for the creative tricks they will employ to mislead, deceive and otherwise cheat local communities.

The latest Ma Bell ploy is to present a “contract” to a local community or access facility in which they agree to carry the PEG channel. It goes something like this:

Whereas, AT&T Indiana agrees to transmit content from the two existing educational PEG channels through AT&T's U-verse TV service using AT&T's Internet Sourced PEG solution pursuant to the terms described in this agreement (the “Agreement”).

The “Agreement” goes on to say that at&t will pay for the transmission of the channel and then charge the cost of that transmission back to the subscriber. And it says that the cost of the transmission of the channel is all that at&t is going to pay for PEG support.

Where do I start?

First, let’s note that the copy of the “Agreement” I received came from a source in Indiana. That’s significant given that Indiana’s Certificate of Franchising Authority (CFA) or statewide franchise, requires a video service provider to provide channels. The same number of channels that were being provided under the existing or incumbent franchises.

The state law that established the CFA’s said nary a word about the operator being able to charge the subscribers for transmission, nor did it say that at&t could charge the cost of transmission against any or all PEG support, or that the cost of transmission satisfied PEG support in the first place. Indeed the state law requires the same amount of support for PEG as was included in existing franchises.

And if there are no channels and no PEG support a local unit of government can petition the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for PEG channels and PEG support.

So basically at&t doesn’t have to “agree” to anything the state law requires them to provide channels and support. Although their “internet sourced PEG solution” is not even a channel and it’s hardly a “solution.” Or maybe it is a “solution,” an erstwhile final solution to PEG channels, the Kaput Solution. (see PEG 0.0 below).

Second, if one is required to transmit a channel cannot one assume that the law meant they were to absorb the costs of that transmission, because if you don’t transmit a channel you are not providing a channel, as per the state or dare I say, federal law? It is assumed that transmission is part and parcel of providing the channel.

For instance, if you say my dog is going to have puppies, aren’t you assuming that at some point the dog actually gives birth to puppies? The puppies don’t just magically appear one day. Even chickens have to lay an egg in order to have baby chicks.

I can’t wrap my head around it.

And so if the PEG entity in question says “I ain’t signin,” are we to assume that at&t says “Ok, then we won’t provide you the channels!” I mean, I would assume that at&t might actually say something that stupid, but most people would realize that it’s a flagrant violation of the law and a flagrant violation of their statewide video franchise agreement.

It is delightful that at&t can go community by community to get these transmission “Agreements” signed but couldn’t bear the thought of going community by community for a franchise agreement in the first place.

I found it interesting that the term of the “Agreement” is only for five years, given there is no term for statewide franchises in Indiana; they go on forever and ever amen. So why five years? What is at&t anticipating could happen in five years? Could it be that they will no longer be in the land line video business but just deliver video via Dish Network? Could it be that they will finally step up to the plate to develop an architecture that actually works and provides PEG channels just like every other channel on their system instead of that 480 x 480 resolution which is lovely for your cell phone but don’t work so hot on your new flat screen? Could it be they think they will be able to crush and destroy all PEG channels over the next five years? Do they know something we don’t about a coming apocalypse that will render such contracts useless anyway?

So this thing is circulating in Indiana, but it is my best guess we shall see identical contracts circulating elsewhere in other states. And after having read all the pieces of state franchising legislation I do not remember a single instance in which PEG operators had to enter in to separate “Agreements” with any video operator. There was plenty of talk about interconnection agreements between operators but not for the transmission of the channels that those laws provided.

at&t really needs to stop Whereasing local communities and abide by the law or they might find themselves Whereased into court.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

PEG 0.0

I will be the first to admit I love “Spin” just as much as the next guy. But even when you’re “Spinning” you should try to include just a kernel of truth in order to make your “Spin” plausible.

Geoff Daily doesn’t seem to understand that concept. He writes a blog called App-Rising where he says “networks, applications and policy collide.” And they really, really collide with fantasy given he is supported in part by at&t. Geoff assures his readers that his opinions are his own. How clever. Are we to understand that if Geoff skewered at&t for its treatment of Public, Educational and Government access channels that he still would get the green? Even naïve old me understands that if you want to keep a client you might want to make sure you have something nice to say about them.

According to Geoff, he was present at an Alliance for Community Media Board meeting where at&t's Chris Boyer demonstrated U-verse PEG offerings. And by the time it was done, while the Alliance Board members certainly had questions and were so kind to offer up suggestions for how to improve PEG delivery on U-verse, the love could be felt in the room. Geoff allowed that all the Alliance representatives were just “nice” people and he couldn’t wait to see where PEG 2.0 (as he calls it) is going!

Furthermore, and I quote, “Where this will ultimately lead is still up in the air, though. Boyer promised to raise many of the ideas and concerns brought out at this meeting up the ladder, but couldn't make any promises regarding specific launch dates of new features and on some issues was unable to guarantee any changes will be made at all.”

Geoff, here’s a news flash, Boyer will not be raising those ideas and concerns about the problems with at&t’s IPTV delivery of PEG and there will be no changes or guarantees or new features or launching because at&t does not intend to do anything other than completely obliterate PEG altogether.

As John Rocco in Charlotte pointed out in his comment on Geoff’s blog “Let's be honest, AT&T has no interest in PEG 2.0, what they really are interested in is PEG 0.0.”

I was surprised that there was such warmth between the Alliance Board members and the at&t representative. In May I witnessed a virtual blood letting at the Southeast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (SEATOA) when the at&t rep demonstrated U-verse. People were so irritated and angry that some needed to be restrained. The at&t rep promised exactly what Boyer did, that he would take those “concerns” up the chain of command and come back with answers. We are still waiting.

After checking around a bit, I found that Geoff’s version of the meeting wasn’t exactly true.

Matt Schuster, Chair of the Alliance, commented to Geoff “Let me clarify the Alliance for Community Media's position on AT&T's provision of the service. The Alliance does not feel that the U-Verse solution for PEG access is acceptable. The channels are treated in a sub-standard inferior manner to broadcast and commercial channels. PEG Channels must be treated in an equitable or identical manner to other channels on the system.

The possibility of interactive features and services does not make up for sub-standard treatment of PEG channels on the U-Verse platform.”

So was Geoff equating “politeness” with “endorsement” or “approval?” T’would seem so, especially because then at&t can take Geoff’s blog and run it around statehouses or communities and claim that the official organization that represents PEG is perfectly content to accept U-verse PEG delivery once it gets a few more tweaks. And in those states where state law requires the PEG channels to be delivered the same way any other channel is delivered, they can use Geoff’s blog as proof that the PEG community really is not that concerned about the crappy delivery system.

How refreshing. at&t pays for a point of view and gets exactly the point of view they want.

Meanwhile I hear Geoff’s blog is being circulated around state and local governments and they are scratching their heads. Does Geoff’s “observations” really reflect the opinion of the PEG community? And if so, then why would we fight to make sure at&t actually delivers the PEG channels the same way it delivers ESPN?

Funny how that works. I wonder who is doing the circulating? Could it be that nasty old Ma Bell?

Final word to the Alliance and its membership, the next time at&t shows up for a “chat” you might not want to be so polite because they will use it against you.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yes, I Mean You

It would be untoward of me to sit around in my little office in Columbia Maryland railing against the cable and telephone operators for the losses Public, Educational and Government access television has suffered over the last couple of years without doing some brutal finger pointing at the “media reform movement.” The very folks who are righteously angry at the current state of media consolidation and lack of media democracy frequently are the first to turn a blind eye or under value the PEG community as less than “real media.”

It puzzles me.

There were instances during the heat of those statewide franchising battles that groups that cry for media justice and reform were either missing in action or telling PEG advocates they needed to compromise their channels and support other issues, such as net neutrality, for example. There was palatable frustration on the ground and plenty of times PEG advocates had to elbow media reformers out of the way because they were clouding issues and doing more harm than good.

But more importantly they weren’t and still aren’t getting “it.”

Let’s go through it one more time, shall we?

We estimate that there are roughly 5,000, count ‘em, 5,000 PEG television channels in this country. Why don’t we know exactly how many? Because there are a bijillion small towns out there that have a channel but don’t necessarily belong to any particular group and aren’t on any particular mailing list. In North Carolina communities were required to certify their channels in order to get some paltry capital funding. The legislature put a cap on the total dollars at $2 million, thinking there were 80 or so channels and each one would get about $25,000. Surprise, surprise. Communities began certifying and lo and behold, over 300 channels emerged. I was just as amazed as anyone because I only had about 40 North Carolina PEG centers on my list (some with multiple channels).

Let’s see now. Clear Channel has some 1,200 radio stations. The PEG community has some 5,000 television channels. What would our stock look like if we were traded? I guarantee you the cable and phone companies know, which is why they fight us tooth and nail and have launched an all out assault to get those channels back or not provide them at all or aggregate them into oblivion or turn them into “streams” rather than real channels.

Every one of those channels has been hard-fought for, community by community. You can’t get any closer to media justice or grass roots than that.

I read this declaration the other day:

“In order for our democracy to work for everyone, we need a media system with democratic values. That means access to a wide range of voices and opinions, programming that encourages civic participation, quality journalism that’s protected from manipulation by commercial interests and support for emerging arts and music.”

This sounds like it came from the Alliance for Community Media website. But it didn’t. It was included in an excellently done tool kit by the Spin Project entitled “Whose Media? Our Media! Strategic Communications Tools to Reform, Reclaim, and Revolutionize the Media.”

The declaration was then followed with how the upcoming media consolidation hearings were the opportunity to begin to reform, reclaim and revolutionize the media. And I would agree that media consolidation is a critical issue, but where were those “reformers, reclaimers and revolutionaries” in Kansas or Tennessee or Ohio or Florida or Georgia when we lost our shirt?

More importantly, here is this lovely communications tool kit, excellently done (really it is a fine piece of work) with a grant from the Ford Foundation, that mentions “cable access” in a brief passage about how academics can be used as a resource. It never once mentions PEG channels as a resource for COMMUNICATING.

Maybe Amy Goodman should explain it to these folks. How many channels is Democracy Now! on these days? Well over 200 hundred and probably closer to 300. Do you know that there are only 354 public television stations in this country? That means that Democracy Now! through PEG channels, has almost the same reach as MacNeil/Lehrer. And I would dare say it’s better because many of these channels run DN! more than once per day. It’s on in Baltimore 20 hours a week for God’s sake.

Am I getting through to the reformers, reclaimers and revolutionaries yet?

And if I am, what exactly are you going to do to help us overturn the damage that has been done to PEG? I want specifics. Are you willing to stand up to the Communications Workers of America who did us severe harm in places like Indiana or California? Are you willing to sign petitions, hold signs, march? Are the funders of the “media reform movement” willing to throw PEG advocacy organizations some green? Are you willing to find out where the PEG centers are in your community and take a tour so you can once and for all finally figure it out?

Or are you just so busy looking at the sky you can’t feel the earth beneath your feet?

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Potemkin Village

Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin was a bright guy who exerted an extraordinary amount of energy figuring out ways to get over on his boss, Catherine the Great. To prove that he hadn’t wasted blood and treasure in the conquering of the wasteland that was Crimea, Grigori constructed facades, moved sheep from fake village to fake village and even had roaring campfires burning, as he led Catherine on river tours of his conquests. Grigori’s abilities of deception would make any Hollywood director proud.

I’ve had employees like that. Instead of actually doing the work, they go to great lengths to make it seem as if they have done the work. Actually if they had done what they were supposed to do in the first place it probably would have taken less time and energy. And because they’re so deeply dedicated to keeping the shell game going at the end of the day you realize that you’ve ended up with nothing and that nothing cost you plenty.

Ah, North Carolina.

The Tar Heel State passed state issued video franchising two years ago in a breathless rush to get at&t to bring competition to its residents. Those were heady days that saw state legislators practically swooning like school girls on prom night. They just couldn’t get a home run fast enough. Here we are two years later and what we got? Nothing, that’s what. Not one stretch of fiber laid, not one house passed, not one refrigerator sized box installed.

It gets better. Seems a friend of mine who is an Executive Director of a Public access center was hanging out around his house in North Carolina when who should come to the door? A salesman for at&t. The salesman began spouting the triple play.

“We got phone for you. We got internet for you. We got Dish Network for you. All in one. Bundled, mind you, at heavily discounted prices!”

My friend informed the fellow that because he runs the Public access channel he has to be able to receive that channel in his home, if only to check on it from time to time to make sure the playback is running correctly.

The fellow said “We carry the Public access channels.”

My friend said “No you don’t, they’re not on satellite.”

The fellow said “Yes we do.”

My friend said “No you don’t.”

It ended in impasse with the at&t guy wondering why my friend didn’t want to take advantage of all that competition the state legislature had so lovingly created. The competition that was supposed to go head to head with Time Warner and finally once and for all, break the back of the cable monopoly!

A little later, my friend and I were present at a presentation by a nice young man who worked for at&t. During the presentation we learned some interesting things about UVerse. For instance, did you know that at&t can only deliver one High Definition “stream” into a household at a time. So if your wife is upstairs watching Lifetime in HD and you are watching the University of North Carolina game downstairs, you won’t be able to get the game in HD because she’s hogging the only HD stream that comes into your house. That brings fighting over the remote to a whole new level. To their credit at&t is working quite hard these days to figure out a way to bring a second HD stream into the home. I’m sure some kind of memo will go out when they finally achieve that goal.

And speaking of “streams” at&t can only deliver four streams at a time. Let’s say it’s the bottom of the ninth in the world series, tied score, all bases are loaded, you got two outs and baseball’s greatest hitter ever just walked up to the plate. At that moment, little Johnny has decided to watch Sponge Bob Square Pants on your 5th tv. The second he turns it on, your set goes dark. That rotten kid has just pre-empted your stream!

That nice young man presenting then said something about how from time to time they need to actually re-wire your house in order to provide UVerse. I guess not all twisted copper wire is the same, I guess at&t is using some new fancy schmancy twisted copper wire. Who knew?

We also learned that at&t will be offering both UVerse and Dish Network in North Carolina. And they’re bragging in their promotional materials for Dish Network that they deliver more HD channels than cable. And when it comes to comparing their Dish Network against their UVerse, anything greater than one HD channel is an improvement. That one has me puzzled. You have to build infrastructure of some form or another in order to deliver the UVerse product, but if people can just go ahead and take the Dish Network, then why in the heck would you build infrastructure in the first place? Doesn’t seem like a sound business model to me.

Meanwhile all the muck that has been the fallout of a bad piece of legislation, including reduced payments to municipalities and the threats to PEG channels, has been the only tangible result of the quest for the holy grail of competition.

It all makes me think about Grigori and his ruse. The irony is that the state motto for North Carolina is Esse Quam Videri. Latin for “To Be, Rather Than To Seem.” Too bad the legislators didn’t have that in front of them when they boarded the at&t bus to nowhere.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tennessee Waltz

It’s every woman’s nightmare. You take your sweetheart to a dance and your best friend dances off with him. Sure it feels like betrayal, but they couldn’t help themselves, they fell in love with each other while they were dancing. Nothing personal, mind you, nothing personal.

I would have loved to been a fly on the wall when at&t, Charter, Comcast and James O. "Jimmy" Naifeh (Speaker of the House of Representatives) were waltzing around, falling in love and leaving the people of Tennessee in the dust. Their love child is the second worst piece of statewide video franchising legislation in this country. It is a clumsy and ugly progeny that is better left locked in a cellar never to see the light of day.

Where do I begin?

The Executive Summary of HB1421 brags that “new large telecom competitors” must build out to 30% of their existing service areas in 3 ½ years. Well, no they don’t. Households that didn’t have access to the broadband internet service of the holder of the Certificate of Authority (statewide franchise) count as two households in the equation and households that had no broadband internet service count as four households. In other words, the build out percentage is really 15% and 7.5% respectively.

“Broadband” in the bill is described as 1.5 Mbps download speed. Rumor has it that at&t assured the legislators that its 1.9 million customers already had access to 1.5 Mbps. If that is true, that at&t already provides “broadband” as defined by the legislation to its customers, then why do they need to meet any kind of build out requirement and why was statewide video franchising needed in the first place? Further, households that have access to broadband service, which would be all of at&t’s customers, count toward at&t’s obligation to build out access to video service, whether at&t provides them access to video service or not.

Further, the bill sets up Connected Tennessee, a nonprofit organization that has had some researchers questioning their involvement with the telephone industry, as a “Verifier” of at&t’s broadband deployment. Connected Tennessee, according to the bill, will take information from at&t, and report that information to the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. The Tennessee Regulatory Authority is then to examine the report provided and if they have any questions, they can look at the information at&t provided Connected Tennessee but they are not to further investigate the veracity of the information.

Okey dokey.

Then there’s all the PEG stuff, yet again. Not only will the cable operators and at&t be able to slam channels into any tier they want but they require the PEG channels deliver the programming according to National Television Standards Committee guidelines and then they have absolute authority to alter that signal anyway they see fit. They also make it clear they have the right to transmit that programming outside of jurisdictional boundaries and it is the responsibility of the PEG channel to acquire all necessary “rights” associated with the programming and if they don’t acquire those “rights” they are not to transmit the programming to the video provider at all. Why is that important? Because for certain things like music or educational programming, the access centers pay for rights based on the numbers of subscribers or students in a school district. How can PEG channels anticipate where the programming will go, and their attendant liability, given the cable ops and at&t have an absolute right to do what they will with the programming? Even to violate copyright laws?

Then there’s the up to 1% for capital equipment. Note the word equipment. Access centers are more than just cameras and lights, they are also bricks and mortar operations. Even the FCC didn’t go this far when they limited additional PEG support to capital expenditures, and in fact they addressed facilities.

Customer service is another lovely section of the Tennessee bill. While there is a nod to the FCC minimum standards, it states that customer service complaints are to be handled in accordance with the service agreement contract between the customer and video provider. In California, Verizon customers are required to opt into arbitration or can only bring civil action in the state of Virginia, that’s in the 2,000 word bundled service agreement and in the 7,000 word internet service contract. Comcast customers across the country were sent a notice that they had to opt-in to arbitration and had a 30 day deadline for opting-out, because Comcast had changed the terms of the service agreement. And frankly, for all of the telecom and cable companies, they can change the terms of the service agreement at any time once you are paying month-to-month. But that’s okay since the bill expressly states that the Tennessee Regulatory Authority has no power to investigate or regulate customer service compliance, it only has the ability to respond to individual customer complaints.

What is even more hysterical about this development is that at&t has no plans to offer video service in competition to cable in the state of Tennessee. It won’t or can’t even step up to the plate to do so in North Carolina, even though they passed statewide video franchising two years ago. at&t in North Carolina is pitching its triple play package of phone, internet and Dish Network. It has not applied for a single statewide franchise in North Carolina. Given that, I can see why the cable guys are so crazy in love with old Ma Bell, she has brought them so much joy. But naïve soul that I am, I’m having a hard time understanding why the Tennessee state legislature would fall for the hag.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Union Made

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come 'round
She always stood her ground.

Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union.
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.
Woody Guthrie

I used to sing my kids to sleep with that song. That and several other Woody Guthrie tunes such as “Deportee” “Pastures of Plenty” and “Riding in My Car.” They liked the melodies and were too young to understand a lot of the words so it worked out just fine.

I believe in unions. If you don’t, think about the fact that you have a forty hour work week, certain benefits, the ability to legally pursue job claims, unemployment insurance, pensions and a host of other things we all take for granted. It would be the rare company that would offer you these things out of the goodness of their capitalistic hearts.

That’s why the story I am about to tell you is at once ridiculously stupid and ironical heartbreaking.

I was taking my dog out into the yard the other day when my phone rang. I decided to let the machine get it so I could finish up with my dog. When I got back inside, I played the message. Somebody had called and hung up. So I looked at the caller I.D. Seems somebody from AT&T had called me. Curious, I used the reverse phone directory and found out the call was from AT&T in Indianapolis.

“That’s odd” I thought. Three days before I had written a blog on Ball State University’s bogus report on the state of telecom in Indiana under statewide franchising. In that blog I skewered AT&T, so why on earth would they be calling me? And why, praytell, from AT&T’s Indiana headquarters?

I waited about fifteen minutes and then I called the number. Nobody answered. It rang and rang and rang. You’d think somebody would have an administrative assistant who could pick up the phone. So I used my cell phone and voila! A fella picked up the phone lickety split.

I said “Someone called me from this number.”

He said “Yes, could you hold on for a second?” He put me on hold. I found it strange he didn't ask who was calling given my cell phone doesn't show my name.

After about 40 seconds he came back on the line and he proceeded to identify himself as a lobbyist for the Communications Workers of America (CWA). I was still thinking that this was weird but then he told me the purpose for his call. He was responding to my inquiry to another union fella a week earlier about jobs created in Indiana since statewide video franchising.

I said “The Ball State University report says 2,200 new jobs were created in Indiana since statewide video franchising, 1,650 of those were from AT&T, can you verify that claim?”

He said “Yes, that’s true. Indiana has led the nation in telecom reform.”

Now I’m thinking where in the world I have heard that before, about how Indiana has led the nation and all…oh yeah! The Ball State report. He said it just like that. Indiana has led the “nation.” Not the country, or the way, mind you, but the nation.

But weren’t about 600 jobs or so created in the wireless business call center?

“Yes,” he replied.

“Well, what does that have to do with video franchise reform?”

He made it clear that those jobs were created as a result of statewide video franchising, that they were a “thank you” from AT&T to the state of Indiana because Indiana had led the nation in telecom reform. AT&T could have put those jobs anywhere he said, but they brought the wireless business call center to Indiana because Indiana had led the nation in telecom reform. Yes, Indiana had led the nation in telecom reform.

“They were a thank you?” I said. “Sounds more like a bribe to me.”

The union fella told me several times that I could call the President of Indiana AT&T, Mr. George Fleetwood. He went on to tell me how awful Comcast and Verizon were and how great AT&T was. He talked about how CWA would do anything to bring union jobs to Indiana.

“Well you might not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” I said. “For instance, do you know that AT&T has been offering service in Bloomington for a year now and they still are not carrying the PEG channels?”

He let me know that was Bloomington’s fault.

“You might want to call George Fleetwood,” he told me.

A couple of days later I took the union fella’s advice and I called George Fleetwood. I had to leave a message. The next day, AT&T’s public relations person and I had the conversation I was supposed to be having with George Fleetwood. It was about the jobs. How could they say that statewide video franchising was responsible for creating all those wireless business call center jobs? Well, because Indiana has led the nation in telecom reform, just like the Ball State report said it did.

I had to go back and look at the original piece of legislation. Sure, Indiana led the nation by completely de-regulating telecom, including wireless. But if that had been the goal all along, de-regulation of wireless in order to bring all those wireless union jobs to Indiana, why did they have to gut local video franchising? Did CWA jump into AT&T’s pocket because they hated Comcast so much? Did CWA have any idea what the statewide video franchising bill would do to PEG in Indiana? Did they even care?

I guess they didn’t care, but they should have.

Somebody tell me where a union, any union, ever gets coverage on television, much less has its own half hour or hour long television show. The answer is Public access television. Without it there is no union programming. I did a query of access stations and found out that CWA uses Public access facilities and channels across this country. CWA could have its programming on the AT&T system in Bloomington if it wanted, but that’s not going to happen because there are no access channels on the AT&T system in Bloomington.

The firefighters, the nurses, the sheet metal workers, the teamsters, the teachers, the hotel workers, the state employees, the musicians, the mechanics, the railroad workers…you name a union and somewhere in this country they have a show on Public access.

I have no doubt that the CWA prides itself in working for justice. But I guess I just wish CWA would fight a tenth as hard for the survival of Public access as Public access has fought for CWA’s right to be seen and heard. What is missing in this discussion is that CWA needs to be on the side of the access community when it comes to dealing with AT&T or the cable operators, because both CWA and the access community would be eliminated by cable or Ma Bell, given half a chance.

Here’s the link to the Union Maid song if you’ve never heard it.

And here’s George Fleetwood’s phone number if you want to use it: 317-265-2123.
Tell him CWA suggested he be called.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Blind Alleys

There are people who have contributed greatly to your personal welfare that you will never hear about. One of those is Marston Bates. He studied mosquitoes in South America and his work improved the understanding of yellow fever. You gotta like a guy like that, somebody who does original and actual research. Bates didn’t take himself too seriously either. He is attributed with saying “Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.

It seems that more people just take things as gospel without ever digging any deeper to get to the facts. I do know the more something is repeated, the truer that something becomes. And if you throw a bit of academia on that something you pretty much got yourself a coup.

Take the recent Ball State University white paper put out by the Digital Policy Institute called “An Interim Report on the Economic Impact of Telecommunications Reform in Indiana.” Luckily the report came out just in time for the opening of state legislative sessions because according to that report Indiana is now leading the nation in terms of innovative and creative telecommunications law.

Did you know that there have been over 2,200 jobs created in Indiana as a direct result of the March 2006 statewide video franchising? That’s what the report says alright, over 2,200 jobs created! Of course the citations to support that claim are from AT&T, Verizon and Comcast press releases and a newspaper report regarding other telecom companies. The largest number of these jobs are attributed to AT&T at 1,650. However, even if you take AT&T at their word and believe their press release, the real story is that at least 600 of those jobs have nothing to do with statewide video franchising, they are call center jobs for wireless business customers.

See: http://www.att.com/gen/press-room?pid=4800&cdvn=news&newsarticleid=24607

If we presuppose that the remaining 1,050 AT&T jobs were strictly created as a result of statewide video franchising and their rollout of U-Verse, we would then have to hypothesize that AT&T ain’t so great at workforce management. As of August, AT&T reported offering U-Verse to five cities in Indiana: Kokomo, Indianapolis, Anderson, Bloomington and Muncie. If we assume that AT&T now has 10% of all subscribers in those cities, or over 30,000 subscribers in Indiana, we have to conclude that AT&T has hired one new employee for roughly every 28.5 subscribers. Ergo we can now say with confidence that AT&T ain’t so great at workforce management.

See how I do that? And all without the added benefit of a professorship or an institute.

Nothing can be empirically proven when all one does is rely on press releases from the very companies one is supposedly researching or multiple citations from the very groups that lobbied for the legislation in the first place. What groups? The very same groups that have traveled from state house to state house, coast to coast, across this nation pretending they have conducted nonbiased, consumer interest research. Folks like: The American Enterprise Institute; Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC); FreedomWorks; Heartland Institute; Phoenix Center; and the Reason Foundation. Throw into the mix the National Conference of State Legislators, whose policy platform is pro-statewide franchising, and you’ve got yourself quite a bucket-load of data regarding how fabulously terrific statewide video franchising is and how Indiana is such a leader in broadband deployment.

What’s true is that almost two years after the law passed, fifteen of the Certificates of Authority applicants were incumbent cable operators hoping to relieve themselves of various obligations in existing franchise agreements. Pesky stuff like capital payments for PEG or PEG channels or PEG operations. Somebody ask South Bend, Hammond, Merrillville, Mishawaka, Plymouth, Goshen and Portage about what happened to their production studios and playback facilities. Somebody ask the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) what the penalty should be for Comcast not making their quarterly capital payments to Fort Wayne even though the law clearly says support is supposed to remain the same.

But what about the price of cable? In Indiana, cable rates have risen from 5% to 20%, depending on tier. Even the “Interim Report” admits that there have been “mixed” results when it comes to price in states with statewide franchises, but then goes on to say that absent “federal statutory relief or regulatory constraint, reform initiatives that promote the entry of new competition would seem warranted if individual states seek a ‘market based’ solution to help moderate future price increases for consumers.” Hold up. Let me see, 17 states have passed “reform initiatives” to promote the entry of new competition, 10 of those “reform initiatives” have been in place for one to two years and I have yet to find a single instance of cable prices dropping in any of those states. However, I certainly must agree with the suggestion of the report that federal statutory relief and regulatory constraint may indeed be needed.

The term “customer service” is mentioned only once in the report and that’s a good thing as the IURC reported in its 2007 Flexibility Report that cable complaints rose 25% the first year after the legislation passed. See http://www.in.gov/iurc/RF_07.pdf. The Indianapolis Business Journal noted that the IURC is not empowered to resolve customer complaints. One community reported that even though local government contact information was removed from subscriber bills by Comcast after it received its statewide franchise, the IURC just forwarded the complaints back to the local government anyway. You can of course go to the IURC website and fill out a form and wait for the IURC to get back to you, but that’s not a comfort if your modem is out or one of AT&T’s boxes explode in your yard.

There’s the issue of why AT&T won’t carry the PEG channels in Bloomington even though they’ve been “serving” Bloomington for a year. Then again, if you followed the hearing on PEG last month you will know that AT&T’s provision of PEG is woefully inadequate and clearly not meeting the requirements of federal law. And you might also have discovered that AT&T isn’t capable of meeting Federal Emergency Alert requirements or providing closed captioning to the hearing impaired.

But hey! The “Interim Report” says things are just dandy in the Hoosier state! And they are about to get even dandier now that the Governor has appointed a former Ameritech lawyer as the IURC Utility Consumer Counselor because everybody knows how great Ameritech was at customer service.

I guess I would be remiss if I do not render friendly advice to the fine folks at Ball State University. Next time there is an urge to come up with a piece of…ahem…research…it would be good to talk to the people who are actually experiencing the realities of statewide video franchising in the state of Indiana rather than simply relying on press releases from San Antonio and bogus reports from Washington, D.C. As Bates said, research is actually going up those alleys and until you do that, you’ll never really know if they are blind.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ce n'est pas la science, c'est l'art!

I do have a passion for two things, Science and Art. Science because I am in awe of those fifty pound brains that can figure out the solar mass of a black hole or the structure and functions of the GNAT superfamily of acetyltransferases; and Art, because I can’t draw anything more complicated than a stick figure and I’m a big fan of Salvador Dali. Ergo I was a wee bit fascinated to find out that Comcast really employs Art, much more than Science, when figuring out what to carry on the analog Basic Tier of Service.

But that’s what the Comcast guy said yesterday at a Congressional hearing.

The hearing of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet to explore the subject of Public, Educational and Government (PEG) Access Services in the Digital age, came about because Comcast, in Michigan, slammed the PEG channels into the digital tier (900) a full year before the digital transition. This move followed a similar move by Bright House in Florida, however, given that Congressman John Dingell, Chair of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, hails from Michigan, it tweren’t so smart a move. Mr. Dingell wanted answers.

Unfortunately Comcast tripped up again. CEO Brian Roberts sent Congressman Dingell a letter that was, how do you say? Less than satisfying. Here’s a tip: don’t write a letter that takes the arrogant tone of an adolescent and then put your CEO’s name on it, not good form.

So Dingell hauled all their cabooses up before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet and threw in AT&T for good measure. I’ll get to AT&T in a minute.

During the hearing, Congressman Edward Markey, the chair, asked the Comcast guy what the criteria was for moving the channels. The Comcast guy (okay his name is David Cohen) responded that the channel placement really wasn’t science it was more of an “art.” Wow, who knew? Can you get college credit for that sort of discipline? Cable Channel Placement 101 worth 3 credits toward an Arts or Humanities degree?

The response was particularly rich given a few minutes later Congressman Dingell asked Mr. Cohen about the four Comcast channels still sitting on analog in the Grand Rapids area. They are: Comcast Information; Comcast Local; Comcast Marketplace; and Comcast Real Estate.

Throughout the hearing it was repeated that Comcast was just trying to give the “people” what they want. And as we all know, people want to shop, shop, shop, from the comfort of their couches and they want more and more stuff sold to them after a long hard day at work since they’re staring down the possibility of getting handed that pink slip, especially in Michigan of all places. Lord knows they don’t want to find out what’s going on in their community and they certainly don’t want to be informed of various nonprofit services and they really can’t abide a children’s reading program (all fare in Grand Rapids). They want cheap bobbles made in Chinese sweat shops and they gotta keep up on all the housing foreclosures!

Then there was AT&T. AT&T doesn’t seem to be able to deliver closed captioning to the Palo Alto area, according to Annie Folger, Executive Director of the Mid-Peninsula Community Media Center. And even if they could, the quality of the channel is so denigrated and it takes so darn long to get there, who’s going to want to watch that channel?

The highlight of the testimony came when AT&T’s Ms. Gail Torreano whipped out a video presentation of just how great those PEG channels were. I heard the Comcast people tittering because the sound on the video wasn’t coming through for at least 15 or so seconds. Then some nice AT&T lady shows you how simple it really is to click, click, click, and click your way to the PEG channel.

More embarrassing was that Annie had a video of her own, courtesy of the folks in San Jose. Annie’s video showed a blank T.V. screen and at first you think “well, who the heck took a picture of that?” then you realize there’s a counter to the side, counting the seconds….:30…:50…1:10...1:37…and voila! We have PEG on demand, just like they said!

These revelations are really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the outright assault on PEG. Nine communities in Indiana lost their PEG channels in December (Comcast); Salina Kansas lost its funding and cable drops to the University and City Hall (Cox); a PEG facility was shut down in Durham, North Carolina (Time Warner); PEG channels were slammed into the stratosphere in Florida (Bright House). And Nevada statewide franchising allows the PEG channels to be aggregated to a single hub office, which means there could end up being no more than 3 PEG channels total in the whole state.

But “we value those channels,” that’s what the video people said yesterday. And we know they give us a competitive edge over satellite, we know they are important and hey, we live in the community too.

There was a conciliatory tone throughout the hearing. AT&T is still in its “infancy” after all and we’re working on it we swear. Comcast will do everything in their power to work with local communities to iron out these issues.

Meanwhile, in Congressman Dingell’s original letter to Comcast and again during the hearing yesterday it was repeated that the intent of Congress was that PEG channels should be offered on the Basic and least expensive tier of service, next to and lined up with the broadcast must-carry channels.

That doesn’t sound like “art” to me, art is a subjective discipline. That sounds more like the objectivity of the scientific world and it shouldn’t take months and rocket scientists to figure it out.

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