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River Falls at Center of Telecom Fight

Comcast, Verizon spar amid frequent cable TV and Internet service outages.

River Falls resident and sports fan Doug Stevens said he was “in heaven” two weekends ago.

On one channel Lance Armstrong was surging toward his seventh Tour de France victory in the final race of his career; on the other, Tiger Woods was dominating the field at the legendary British Open.

Then the cable went out.

“I’m a nice guy, but when they took Tiger and Lance away on the same day I started to look for another provider,” Stevens said.

STEVENS GETS both his cable TV and high-speed cable Internet service from Philadelphia-based Comcast, which is the largest provider of both services in Montgomery County.

Comcast has come under fire for frequent service outages and customer service problems in the last six months, with a surge in May and June.

Jill Feldman — another River Falls resident — called customer service when at least five homes on her block lost cable TV and Internet two weeks ago.

“Originally they said we can’t come out till Aug. 1. I said we have a whole half a block out. Their only response was, 'well do you want morning or afternoon,' that was their only response,” Feldman said.

Feldman kept calling, and five days later a Comcast crew came to fix the problem, but told her they weren’t authorized to access the equipment that needed to be fixed. The crew told her she needed to call two other departments, but didn’t have the numbers to call. She called customer service again, and they told her that they didn’t have the numbers either.

“I call customer service every day, because who else do you call? I only have one number,” Feldman said. “Each person gives a different story.”

Feldman finally reached a technical operations supervisor and said that when she did, she had a crew at her door within an hour. They fixed the problem and she has since received calls offering a letter of apology.

BUT THE FLURRY of Comcast outages — and customer service problems — in River Falls has continued, and the cable company is not solely to blame.

Since early this year, Verizon has been laying underground fiberoptic cable in the neighborhood, part of a $100 million statewide rollout of the new technology, which can carry voice, data, and video transmissions through pulses of light at speeds as much as 10 times faster than current cables.

Critics, particularly those who work for Comcast, say the digging has been done hastily — with any eye to connecting potentially lucrative neighborhoods like River Falls first — and that Verizon has been cutting some Comcast lines in the process.

“Verizon's activity … really coincides with the increase in customers raising issues,” said Jim Gordon, Comcast vice president for communications. “In the past few months, the Verizon activity specifically has resulted in over 3,100 individual service lines needing repair or complete replacement.”

When the Verizon digging damages Comcast’s lines, the repair work still falls to Comcast, adding to the strain on Comcast’s repair crews and call centers from summer storms. Customers who lose service may not know the Verizon work is to blame, and become further frustrated with Comcast.

Gordon said that storms knocked out above-ground Comcast lines on 11 days in May and June, but that the impact of Verizon’s digging has been much greater, costing Comcast more than $360,000. Comcast has responded by adding technical operations and call center staff and expanding appointment windows, measures Gordon said should start to ease the customer service strain by the middle of next month.

Ells Edwards, a Verizon spokesman, said that Verizon uses contractors to lay the fiberoptic line, known as FIOS. The company notifies residents of the work, and coordinates closely with other utility companies, “including our competitors in the cable world,” he said. But problems still arise.

“With a project this large, there are going to be inevitably some problems with digging and construction and all types of things,” Edwards said. “These things are going to happen. We really regret it when it does. It’s in our best interest to have the process go as smoothly as possible.”

RIVER FALLS RESIDENT Lee Raesly decided to switch from Comcast’s cable Internet service to the new Verizon FIOS service.

Verizon sent a crew June 22 to supply the final link between the new fiberoptic cable and Raesly’s home. He was connected in about five hours.

Raesly said the Verizon crew was friendly and efficient. But, “In the process they cut my cable. They cut it in two places.”

Verizon said they couldn’t fix the cable line, which Raesly still uses for television service, and he had to wait for three weeks — and three missed appointments — for a fix from Comcast. He returned early from vacation to meet the Comcast crew. When they were done, he had his cable back, but had to spend a Saturday repairing the damage to his yard.

Raesly, who runs the information technology company BroadPoint Technologies in Bethesda, said he has been happy with the new Verizon Internet service, getting seven to eight times the download performance he had gotten from Comcast. But with the service in place for only a month, it’s too early to compare the companies’ reliability.

Raesly switched to Verizon partly for the higher performance but also because he doesn’t think Comcast places a high enough priority on keeping their Internet service running.

“The problem with cable is they treat Internet usage as a convenience. People view Internet as an essential communications tool much like a phone line. Comcast looks at Internet much like they view cable TV,” Raesly said.

Whereas in the past, the Internet may have been mostly a diversion, people now use it to work from home and for essential communication with people like teachers and doctors.

Comcast’s Gordon refuted Raesly’s claim, saying that Comcast has added 38 service enhancements in the past 18 months aimed at better connectivity.

“We recognize that customers rely on this service. We've put into place numerous ways to monitor and enhance the service in many ways without customers even knowing,” he said. “We want people to alert us if they’re having any issue.”

THE PROBLEMS IN River Falls point to larger questions about competition and the future of Internet technology, leaving competitors Comcast and Verizon pointing fingers at each other.

Under laws regulating cable service, companies like Comcast have to negotiate “franchise agreements” in each municipality where they wish to provide service. The agreements include local service regulations and a franchise fee — a percentage of gross revenues paid to the city or county.

Comcast bought out the cable provider Prime Communications in Montgomery County in July, 2000, and inherited Prime’s franchise agreement, with some revisions. The agreement is non-exclusive, and there is another cable provider in the county — RCN, the company formerly known as Starpower — but critics say that media giants like Comcast squeeze out local competition, creating functional monopolies.

The main alternatives to dominant cable companies come from satellite TV providers like DIRECTV.

Verizon does not yet have approval to offer video service through its FIOS lines, and it’s unclear whether the fiberoptic technology will be subject to the same regulations as cable.

Edwards said Verizon is “aggressively seeking” the authority to provide video service. “The cable guys are out there saying well we had to get franchises and these guys have to get franchises too. What we are saying is look, we're going to comply with the law, but let’s try to streamline the process. If we have to go through hundreds and hundreds of local approval sessions, the whole thing could be dragged out for years and years,” he said.

“They were given a monopoly. We won’t have a monopoly. We'll be the new kid on the block. They don't want us in their sandbox.”

“This is not about us not competing. We've been competing for years,” said Comcast’s Gordon, pointing to the satellite companies and alternative cable providers like StarPower. He noted that, by agreement, Comcast is required to provide cable service throughout the county, while Verizon has the option of “cherry picking” and focusing on places like River Falls.

AT THE SAME TIME, little regulation exists on the Internet front.

A year ago, County Councilmembers Marilyn Praisner (D-4) and Phil Andrews (D-3) introduced legislation to provide standards for cable modem service. Comcast strongly opposed the legislation, and critics said it was gutted before passing, but the successful bill was the first of its kind in the nation and did include stringent customer service regulations. In 75 percent of cases, customers must be able to reach a service representative within one minute of calling and must receive a busy signal less than 3 percent of the time. In 95 percent of cases, repairs for service interruptions must be completed with 36 hours of the service request, and customers are entitled to a prorated rebate where the disruption is longer.

The Council's Management and Fiscal Policy Committee met Monday to review Comcast customer service.

Comcast is required to provide quarterly adherence data to the county, and has yet to make a report in 2005.

"They're refusing to provide the information on the bogus assertion that it's confidential and proprietary," Andrews said. He said that Council was quickly moving toward assessing penalties, under the 2004 law.

Andrews said that the county has so far treaded lightly around the cable giant, which supports charitable programs and airs public service announcements.

"Comcast clearly seeks to attain goodwill from the county through participating in all kinds of events and sponsorships," Andrews said, raising concerns about whether the county is "as vigorous as it should be" in regulating the company.

Existing cable Internet standards wouldn’t apply to the FIOS lines, leaving Comcast steaming over what it sees as unbalanced regulation, even as Verizon installation errors cut some Comcast lines.

The Council Management and Fiscal Policy committee also reviewed Verizon digging issues Monday.

”Here we are in a county that prides itself on watching out for consumers. We just find it interesting that this Verizon issue continues at this pace without more response from the county.” Gordon said. “This is costing not just Comcast, but it's clearly costing the county something, in dealing with these issues.”

”There’s a lot of finger pointing here. … From a competitive standpoint it puts some interesting issues out there."