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

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Friday, October 23, 2009


On the Maryland Politics Watch blog, Adam Pagnucco has posted an essay in response to our elected leaders asking what can be cut from the Montgomery County budget. Adam's suggestion: Cut County Cable Montgomery.

According to viewership numbers, very few people watch CCM. Since so few people watch it, I have to assume most readers of this blog don't even know what it is I will provide an explanation. In a nutshell, CCM is the C-SPAN of Montgomery County. CCM provides live coverage of council sessions, press conferences, and public affairs programming. CCM is delivered as a cable channel and many shows are available from the county website or youtube.

Adam observes that the CCM budget has grown substantially: 16.9% in FY07, 13.9% in FY08, and an amazing 22.9% in FY09. That is breathtaking, especially considering the cuts that have taken place elsewhere in the budget.

Adam's explanation about the CCM program and its budget growth? Incumbent protection. Adam explains:
All too many of these programs seem to have a common primary purpose: making the incumbent office holders look good. Over and over again, politicians are shown prancing at press conferences, smiling to their adoring admirers and explaining why Montgomery County is such a wonderful place to live – under their leadership, of course. County Report, CCM’s flagship weekly program, is little more than a parade of such political frolicking.
I won't repeat Adam's other observations but I encourage you to read his essay. I agree with most of his points. However ...

It is important to understand that the CCM is not funded out of the county's general revenues. Rather, CCM is part of a separate budget (the "cable communications plan") that is funded primarily by franchise fees which are paid by everyone subscribing to cable TV. Pull out your bill and take a look. It may seem small on your bill (well, maybe not) but it adds up. The current budget calls for franchise fees of roughly $10.6 million. Revenues from some smaller sources bring the total income to $15.8 million for all things cable.

The cable revenues are not to be used for items outside the cable budget (although the county has been known to borrow from it occasionally). But the bottom line is that cutting CCM is not a useful response when our elected leaders ask what we would sacrifice to help balance the budget.

That said, cutting CCM might be useful for a number of other reasons. For example, our political leaders have better things to do with their time than do interviews that are watched by almost no one. The FY09 CCM budget is roughly $2.5 million. Of that, the Public Information Office (the source of the most pointless of such shows) is $720 thousand, about 29% of the CCM budget. (Would it be too much to ask that some of that be used to make CCM work on Apple Macs?)

In my opinion, many of the other shows produced by or distributed on CCM are also of little value. Most of them are just filler between county council sessions. What is missing is more valuable video such as council work sessions and committee and commission meetings. These videos would provide citizens with a much more useful understanding of what the county government does than pablum produced by a public information office. (Note that the county has an even larger budget for "public information" that does come from general revenues. And which should also be cut.)

In the past, I have recommended that we give up the channel entirely (presumably getting something valuable in return) and instead provide streams and archives over the web for the videos that are truly vital to informing the citizenry of their government. I recommend that for most of the channels in the PEG network.

As I write this, I have turned on CCM to see what is being broadcast. It's Councilmember Nancy Floreen holding her dog and talking about her family ("Lady is a rescue schnoodle ...") and showing family photos of her travels around the world. Very entertaining. But how is this a justifiable use of taxpayer funds?

Note: The county will deny that franchise fees are a tax. Call them what you will.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Strange Sense of Security

MCPS recently announced it wants a security system for the elementary schools. RFP (Request for Proposals) 4248.1 "Elementary Schools Access Control Systems" is publicly available at the Parents Coalition web site in an article by Louis Wilen.


I decided I'd have a look. What I found was astonishing.

The RFP starts out reasonably. The request sketches out the idea of doors that use access-control cards. As a past elementary-school parent myself, I could see this makes sense for school staff who are regularly going in and out. The kids themselves don't need access cards because they're only using the doors during brief periods (i.e., school day begins, recess, etc.) when an adult is stationed at the door.

But after hours, I would regularly encounter doors propped open with a rock or chair so that parents could enter. And sometimes I would encounter a locked door and a crowd of angry parents banging on the door, unsuccessfully trying to raise the attention of a school staffer.

The MCPS proposal provides for cameras so conceivably a parent could get the attention of someone in the office to have the door opened remotely. Indeed, the cameras could be viewed offsite so it wouldn't even be necessary to have someone watching them in the school itself. They could be viewed at MCPS HQ or anywhere on the internet.

Sounds good so far. So what's the problem?

The Problem

For starters, there's a lot in the RFP that's unnecessary. Consider this section:
2.2.4.m The EAC/SMS System shall have a fully integrated Environment Security Module (ESM) with the capability of detection and identification of toxic gases, Chemical Warfare Agents including Soman, Sarin, VX, Mustard, and Lewisite. The Environmental Security Module shall include a suite of sensors integrated with the EAC/SMS System capable of detecting over 1,000 chemical and gas compounds with ...
Is this for real? Since when do we need chemical warfare detection systems in our elementary schools? (Answer: We don't.)

I'm thinking that this RFP was written with the idea of applying for grant support from some federal security program. That seems to be the way half of these new security policies are justified these days - because there's money waiting for them. (The other half? Hyperbole-driven paranoia.)

Speaking of paranoia, how come there are no metal detectors? How is the system supposed to stop people entering with guns? Knives? (Atomic weapons?) How are we supposed to sleep at night? Seriously - why such a weird focus?

Next Problem

Another class of problem is that the specs are a hodgepodge. Plenty of the requirements have no thought to functionality but dwell obsessively on irrelevant technical detail. For example:
3.6 ... shall incorporate a 32-bit 100 MHz RISC processor ...
Besides the unnecessary use of the vague term RISC, why would someone specify a maximum speed? Normally, if you have a specific processor in mind, you'd say 100 MHz or faster but this spec means faster chips aren't acceptable. That's absurd. But realistically, so is the idea of even giving processor speeds for a security system. Function is what counts, not processor speed. An example of a functional spec: System must recognize a face 95% of the time within 2 seconds. Who cares how fast the underlying processor is?

So why might someone write specs this way? Answer: When they have a prior arrangement with someone looking to dump a bunch of obsolete equipment on some sucker.

The circle was closed once I reached section 5.2 which referenced James Gompers as the consultant to the project. Gompers has been a security consultant for MCPS before. Writing in the Parents Coalition Blog, Louis Wilen says (May 1 2009):
[MCPS] Security Director Hellmuth was so impressed by Gompers that he hired him to select millions of dollars of video cameras and computer-based visitor tracking systems for our schools. Hellmuth had so much confidence in Gompers that he even disregarded the MCPS procurement procedures and state laws that require that competitive bids must be solicited for large purchases. Even the selection of Gompers, Inc. as the security consulting firm was made on a "no-bid" basis by Hellmuth.
The PC Blog raises a number of concerns regarding Gompers, his business practices, his relationship to MCPS and the disregard for their own policies that MCPS appears to be taking in this relationship. I encourage you to read their blog for more details.

More Problems?

Building on the Gompers relationship, I'll mention just one more peculiar technical aspect of this spec. First note that one of Gompers' achievements was selecting a particular line as the standard for MCPS security cameras. According to the press release of the company (IQinVision) whose products (IQeye cameras) were selected, Bob Helmuth (Directory of School Safety and Security for MCPS) said:
For what we wanted to accomplish at MCPS, the IQeye cameras was the best choice for us. We would go with nothing less than megapixel cameras both for image quality and for coverage.
Sure enough, the RFP does specify IQeye cameras just as MCPS standardized on. However, the RFP says:
8.3.14 The video will be 640x480 resolution
8.3.15 The video will be at up to 2 images/second
But 640x480 is much less (roughly 70% less) than the "megapixel" cameras that MCPS Security Directory Helmuth said are now required. (Remember: "We could go with nothing less than megapixel cameras.") And the particular model IQeye732) isn't even listed in the IQeye website product line-up. (Nor could I find it anywhere on the web with google.) Presuming it's an unannounced upcoming model, if it follows the IQeye naming conventions, the 732 will be a 2-megapixel model. But because of the way the RFP is written, it's a waste of money because the video will be at 640x480. No more, no less.

Oh, and the video will be at "up to 2 images/second." Again, a really strange way of phrasing because it specifies a maximum rather than a minimum. And again, that's a fraction of the camera's ability. So once more, it's wasted money to buy such a camera. And frankly, 2 images/second really sucks. Even the cheapest IQeye cameras can do 30 images/second. (And the Gompers-specified cameras are far from the cheapest.)

And that MCPS standard (for which MCPS paid Gompers) for IQeye cameras and their megapixel cameras? That was a waste of money too. I don't know how much MCPS paid Gompers but it wouldn't surprise me if it was in the range of $50K - $100K.

By the way, according to MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast, " All of our technology partners know they are not permitted to use MCPS testimonials in advertising." This is a quote from a January 2009 memo of his (see answer #9). This is otherwise known as MCPS Policy BBB. As can be seen with the press release from IQeye, this policy is clearly being ignored. Writing in the Parents Coalition Blog, Janis Sartucci described this in detail along with several other failures of the policy. It is an eye-opening read.

Bottom Line

Although I've picked out just a few examples, the entire proposal has more. Some of them are harder to explain but equally laughable. Browsing the proposal is not for the faint-of-heart but if have a bit of technical expertise, give it a read. Post a comment describing the absurdities that you find. (Here's one to get you started: Search for Linux and Windows.)

So what's this going to cost? Because it sounds incredibly expensive. Add up all paraphenalia in the RFP (chemical warefare detectors?!), new software (that we get to debug), labor costs (one-time, maintenance, training), etc., and we're talking millions of dollars. And that's for a system that has no functional guarantees that it will actually stop anyone from entering the school and, for that matter, even detect a knife or gun.

At my own workplace, we have card-based entry systems that are regularly bypassed. Two people approach the door at the same time, the first swipes the card. The second walks through while the door is still open. So much for million-dollar security. We could spend less (and lower the unemployment rate) by employing people to stand at the doors all day. Better yet, let's pay these people to stay home. It would be an equally effective system and a whole lot cheaper.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

FIOS schedule for Rockville and Gaithersburg

Verizon's construction schedule has expanded significantly from the last time I checked it. Their Maryland FIOS schedule suggests that Verizon is cruising through Rockville. Gaithersburg, too. Gaithersburg approved its franchise this past May and predicting complete coverage by the end of 2009. Bets, anyone?

Both Rockville and Gaithersburg have information pages on their individual websites for cable TV and telecommunications (Rockville, Gaithersburg) but they are pretty skimpy - and in the case of schedules, just referring the reader back to the companies. Don't hesitate to contact your local officials if you have questions.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Email Ownership

I've written previously about ISP-provided email addresses and how risky they are. To recap, you're at the mercy of your ISP when you use an address such as don@comcast.net or don@verizon.net. Numerous people at broadbandreports.com have reported problems with their Comcast email. The only common factor seems to be that Comcast's system is too complex. Because your email address is tied to your account which is tied to every other service Comcast offers, people have found their emails locked due to anything from late payments to installation of phone service.

Previously, I mentioned another concern: Switch providers and you must leave your address behind. Few ISPs providers let you keep your address or offer to forward your email.

As if to prove me wrong, one of my friends found himself in this very situation when he switched from Comcast to Verizon a year ago. He had long been using a comcast.net address, had given it out to many people, and had subscribed to various mailing lists with it. And he figured the address would stop working when he left Comcast.

But the comcast.net address continued working. So he continued using it.

Curiously, Comcast didn't turn it off or ask for it back. Until...

About a year later, he decided he didn't like Verizon and wanted to go back to Comcast. Even I couldn't have guessed what would happen next: As soon as he opened a new account with Comcast, his old Comcast email address stopped working!

After calls to the local office proved unhelpful, he called Comcast's corporate headquarters in Philadelphia, each time being referred to an Executive Response Team member who would vow to fix the problem. After weeks of getting nowhere, he tracked down a technician who seemed to understand - but lacked the immediate access to make the needed changes. But enough badgering and finally someone got through and my friend got his email account back. It only took my friend hours of time on the phone spread over 60 days - for a fix that shouldn't have taken more than 10 minutes.

You may want to put that in the "just asking for trouble" category. After all, my friend did continue using a Comcast service (an email address) despite no longer being a customer. But I think you're at significant risk even if you are a Comcast customer in good standing. Case in point: A poster (userid: baffled) on dslreports.com described that an email address he had used for 4 1/2 years recently stopped working. When he called, Comcast told him that that another customer with the same name in Texas closed his Comcast account and the email address was "owned" by the Texan. (Clearly Comcast's idea of "ownership" is pretty weak if you can "own" it one day and "not own" it the next.) Anyway, since Mr. Texas was the "legal owner" of the email address, Comcast said there was nothing they could do.

In addition, baffled found that his sub-account email addresses were inoperative as well including one that he used as a business address. Fortunately, Comcast was able to resolve his problem in just 24 hours. It was just an accident! Our bad!

Ultimately, he got his accounts back along with his emails. But I would've bet against it. It is apparent from these and other stories that Comcast is not concerned with the way they handle email addresses.

If anyone can show me an ISP that provides any kind of guarantees on their mail service, I'd love to see it. Until then, I restate my earlier advice: Using ISP-provided email addresses is just too risky. And using them for business is insane.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Can We Call

Is it too much to hope that I could get through a year without loss of service? Made it to February anyway. I guess that's something.

Thursday, Feb 20, 2009

I woke to find my internet service wasn't working. I confirmed it wasn't my equipment. The lights on the cable modem acknowledged the problem to be at the modem or beyond it. So I called Comcast.

Ricardo answered. I explained the problem and said it showed the same symptoms as the previous outage I had back in July. I mentioned this because the tech who visited me then promised that someone would come back and complete the fix or else the problem would recur.

Me: (paraphrase) That was in July. And no one ever came back.
Ricardo: (paraphrase) According to my records, someone did come out and fix it.
Me: They may have fixed something but it wasn't the right thing. The splitter on the pole wasn't touched and it was supposed to be removed. Could you send someone who can do the right job?
Ricardo: I can give you an appointment for a technician to come to your home on Saturday between 8-11am.
Me: Thank you.
Ricardo: Do you have a phone number for the technician to call before he comes over?
Me: I have VOIP, so without internet service, he won't be able to reach me.
Ricardo: How about a cell phone number?
Me: Cell service is unreliable. Just have the tech come without calling. I'll be here.
Ricardo: Ok, I'll write that on the ticket. He'll come without calling. But I have to warn you that if he's running late, he'll have no way to contact you.
Me: I understand.

Here's a picture of the splitter in question - installed by Comcast.


Late Friday, I found the internet connection was active. But I still wanted the tech to come out and fix the connectors so I looked forward to Saturday morning.


8-11am. No one showed. When 11am came, I assumed the tech was running late so I didn't worry.

At 3pm, I figured there's no way a tech could be running this far behind but I had to leave the house to run an errand so I called Comcast just to make sure the tech wouldn't waste his time trying to visit me even this late.

Me: It's 3pm. What happened to the technician?
Anika: The appointment was cancelled because there was no phone number to call.
Me: Are you sure? I specifically told Ricardo that I had no working phone and just to come over. Ricardo said he was writing down that there was no phone and the tech should come over without calling. Are you sure there are no notes to that effect?
Anika: There is no such note.

Me: Can we get Ricardo on the phone? Let's clear this up right now.
Anika: Ok, just tell me his extension.
Me: You want me to tell you his extension?
Anika: Yes, that's the only way I can get in touch with other people here.
Me: He gave me his name. That's not enough?
Anika: The call center is very large, sir. I cannot do anything with just his name.
Me: Can I speak to a supervisor? I'd like to formally complain about Ricardo or find out what's going on.
Anika: There are no supervisors here on Saturday. Call back during the week.

Anika offered to credit me $20 for the missed appointment and offered to reschedule the appointment.

Anika: Can I reschedule you now? I might be able to send someone there later today.
Me: No thank you. I can't wait here any longer.

We ended the phone call and I left the house at that point.

7pm. I returned later that evening and found a note from a Comcast technician on my front door. The technician noted that the "Scheduled Work Date and Time" for the job was 2-5pm. He noted that he arrived at 4:38pm.

A couple of observations can be drawn from this episode. The first is that either someone is lying or Comcast's system for taking notes isn't working. In fact, this isn't the first time I've encountered this problem.

Second, there's no explanation for how a technician would summarily cancel an appointment on his own. Just because there's no phone number isn't a useful reason. (Even a non-answering number isn't a good reason as I explained in a previous posting.)

Third, there's no explanation for the 2-5pm appointment. Where did it come from? It couldn't have been Anika because I told her I couldn't wait at the house any longer. I specifically told her not to send a technician later in the day. Could the technician just have decided on his own? Without even contacting the customer? What kind of communication is there between the people answering the phone and the techs in the field? Or rather why is it so bad? Here's a more detailed reminder.

Lastly, I have now learned that just because a Comcast representative gives me a name, I should also ask for a phone number. I've never heard of this nonsense before but ok, I'll play along if that's what it takes.

I will file a formal complaint with Montgomery County. Not only is something seriously broken with Comcast's customer support but my connection is still problematic - and it's been this way for 8 months.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Transparency Not Either

I recently described a state bill to create a website that would enable the public to see MCPS purchases - and my testimony at Annapolis requesting to remove the $10K threshold. To recap, the legislators didn't seem interested in the removal idea. I have since found out that they did exactly the opposite! Yes, they raised the threshold to $25K.

My only thought: We must vote these people out of office at the next opportunity. Let me know if you have better suggestions.

Montgomery County's Turn

Now Montgomery County is considering a similar bill for county purchases, Council Bill 1-09. Curiously, it has the same problem - the bill only requires transparency for purchases $25K or higher. What is with these people that they cannot think of amounts less than $25K?

The county council is scheduled to take action on this bill next week (Feb 24 2009) so you still have several days to weigh in. I submitted essentially the same letter that I did to the state but this time focusing more clearly on the limit, even going so far as to put my thrust in the subtitle in English that even a 5th grader would understand. Here it is:

Comments On Bill 1-09 Finance - Spending Disclosure

Summary: Good bill but would be better if the $25,000 limit was removed.

Don Libes
February 5, 2009

I strongly support the intent of Bill 1-09 - to provide transparency of county purchases. But while thousand dollar purchases need disclosure, so do smaller ones. Many inappropriate purchases are less than a thousand dollars or even a hundred dollars - exorbitant lunches and gifts, unjustifiable travel, and so on. Limits, whether $25,000 or $10,000, are easy to avoid. It’s not hard to break up a million-dollar purchase of electronic whiteboards or computers in to groups of purchases that fall below the limit. It requires little effort to do - a few more clicks of the mouse.

So pass the bill but without dollar limits and without qualifying words such as “aggregate” that could delay disclosure. Rather, the website should report any purchase that the county tracks using its existing financial management system. The cost of this change would be negligible given that the purchases are already in an existing database. And disk space is cheap. $100 buys enough space to hold decades worth of purchase information.

We should take a cue from our new president. On his first day of office, President Obama issued a memorandum indicating that, unless there is a justifiable reason to withhold information, records must be public by default. If there is a justifiable reason for the $25K limit, I have yet to hear it. Disclosure should not have to wait for specific requests from the public.

I close with the following words from Obama's memorandum. Accountability is in the interest of the government as well as the citizenry. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.