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Behind the Telecom Lawsuit

Potomac resident Don Libes writes on Montgomery County’s interactions with Comcast and Verizon.

Verizon Wireless, in what it calls "an effort to bring video choice and competition" to local residents, has filed suit against Montgomery County "for its unreasonable and illegal cable-franchising demands." In response, Montgomery County accused Verizon of trying to eschew regulations that benefit the public, and of posturing for the national debate on telecom franchises.

In the war of dueling press releases from Verizon and Montgomery County, it's difficult to discern fact from fiction. One Potomac resident with a passion for local telecommunication issues offers his interpretation of the controversy on his online blog.

Don Libes is a computer scientist and published author who has lived in Potomac for about 10 years. He became interested in local telecommunications issues because he considered his Comcast cable Internet service unreliable.

“I put up with it for about two years,” he said. “What other choice did I have? Complaining to Comcast was ineffective.”

Libes finally sought improvements by serving on the county’s cable advisory committee for three years. He said his service improved dramatically after he was able to communicate with Comcast officials directly.

The county executive declined Libes a second term on the committee. (“Most of my opinions were at odds with his,” said Libes.) The computer scientist continued to be a fixture at the monthly meetings, and within a year, Libes debuted his blog “Libes Libations” at www.libes.com/don/blog. For the last three years, he has spent 25 to 30 hours per month attending meetings, conducting research and posting his findings online.

“I’ve found that newspapers in the area… don’t cover [telecommunications issues] in any level of detail, so I’ve continued to attend the meetings and report on what people need to hear,” he said.

PRESS RELEASES from Verizon and the Montgomery County Council oversimplify an extremely complex debate, said Libes. For one thing, the county is not out to quash cable competition.

“I think everybody in the county is interested in competition,” said Libes. “The disagreements [the county and Verizon] had weren’t about competition, they were in areas such as regulation.”

Bruce Romer, Chief Administrative Officer for Montgomery County, released a statement on Monday in response to the allegations in Verizon’s lawsuit.

“While we understand and appreciate the benefits of competition, we have an obligation to ensure that all cable providers in Montgomery County compete on a level playing field and that we do not give one company special privileges not available to others,” he said. “We also want to ensure that all cable subscribers in the county benefit from the consumer protections that they deserve and have rightly come to expect.”

Montgomery County has strict requirements for its cable franchises in terms of regulating the companies’ response to power outages, the space available for public channels, the time required to answer customer service calls, and the number of people in the county that the service will be offered to. Comcast has gone along with the demands, but Verizon is unwilling and considers the requirements illegal.

“The county’s franchising process violates the First Amendment of the Constitution,” said Harry Mitchell, spokesperson for Verizon. “Essentially by adding cable TV to what we provide and offer customers, Verizon is going to be engaging in a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Local laws that govern what governments can do in giving licenses to people who want to speak … have very strict time limits.

“The county’s code and its regulations also violate the Federal Communications Act, that expressly prohibits local governments from using their cable franchise abilities to seize control over telephone service or broadband Internet service,” he added. “The county’s ordinance and their regulations do just that.”

Councilmember Marilyn Praisner had a different take on the county’s regulatory efforts. She said they include the county’s ability to manage building rights, know where technology is buried so they can monitor problems with the lines, and ensure that construction is done “in a prompt and responsible way.”

“Verizon is not used to dealing with local governments, so they may think it’s onerous, but the requirements were dealt with comfortably by the cable providers,” she said.

Romer said that Verizon’s proposal for the initial service area in the county did not include Rockville, Takoma Park, Chevy Chase, Gaithersburg and part of Bethesda and Silver Spring. He said that under Verizon’s current terms, those communities may not receive cable services for ten years.

ON HIS BLOG, Libes questioned the accuracy of a section of Councilmember Marilyn Praisner’s recent press release:

“Repeatedly I have urged Verizon to submit a cable franchise and yet they have refused while posturing publicly … that they were committed to working with us,” she wrote in a statement issued earlier this month.

“That’s so misleading because the county specifically advised Verizon not to file an application,” said Libes. “They were told that by the county executive’s office and the cable office” to wait until the parties’ questions had been resolved.

Verizon spokesperson Harry Mitchell also said that the county had encouraged Verizon to delay their formal application.

“We actually polled the county when we started negotiations on May 19, 2005,” he said. “We had begun preparing a formal franchise application, but county officials told us we should wait until they had approved the principle terms of the franchise agreement before we make a formal application.”

Councilmember Praisner responded that this was a “less than accurate characterization of what happened.”

“In the initial conversations, the suggestion was made that folks talk through things before the formal document was submitted,” she said. Later, “the county said ‘Submit a franchise.’”

“That initial conversation is now being used to suggest that the county didn’t want a franchise, and that is totally inaccurate,” Praisner added. “I think it points to their doing significant work to lay the groundwork for a lawsuit, so they could then turn around and say, ‘Look how long it’s taken [for the franchise] to go through Montgomery County’ without highlighting their contribution to the length of time.”

THE LAWSUIT in Montgomery County is set against a backdrop of national debate over the regulatory powers of local cable franchises.

A bill that has passed the House and is currently in the Senate would regulate cable franchises on the national level.

“It wouldn’t allow a local jurisdiction to assess their own individual needs and decide what a cable franchise should look like from the prospective of their community needs,” said Praisner. She called Verizon’s lawsuit an example of “their national posturing to try to influence legislation on Capitol Hill.”

Libes is eager for local cable competition, but he also sympathizes with the county’s desire to regulate the services in order to protect consumers.

“I think the county’s in a really tough position,” he said. “There’s a bill in Congress being debated that offers national franchises, and if that bill passes, Montgomery County’s hands may be forced.

“They will lose a lot of their bargaining position and they’ll have a franchise shoved down their throats.”

Libes believes that it’s just a matter of time before the bill is passed. Telecommunications companies like Verizon are powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill that spent over $9 million to defeat the recent net neutrality legislation, according to his Web site.

LIBES’ BLOG is only advertised through word of mouth, though it is one of the top ten hits on Google for keyword searches that include “Verizon,” “Comcast” and “Montgomery County.”

“I do know county officials read it, and Verizon and Comcast officials read it, because they e-mail me” about it, he said.

What do the groups that Libes critiques think of his extensive blog?

“They seem to love it, which mystifies me, because I say very harsh things,” he said. “Typically the emails that I get are additional facts that help me write.”

Libes said that his readers at Comcast and Verizon seem to appreciate his interest and his quest for accuracy.

“They recognize that their side of the story is not always portrayed well in the media or on forums where anybody can say something and they don’t have to identify who they are,” he said. “When I write about Comcast in my blog I’m even-handed.”