Friday, August 31, 2001
Town powerless to force AT&T service upgrades
Some town residents are eager for high-speed Internet access from almost any source, but the Carlisle Cable Advisory Committee (CCAC) has been frustrated in trying to make "broadband" services a condition of renewing the AT&T cable television license, which expires this October.
On August 14, the committee provided citizens a chance to comment on AT&T's proposed agreement with the town, another step in the long process of planning for the license renewal, that began with a 1999 town-wide survey on cable service. In May, the selectmen formally submitted a request for proposal (RFP) for the cable license renewal, and in early July AT&T, which recently took over the former Nashoba/Cablevision license, indicated in a written proposal what services they would agree to provide.
Towns in the 'donut hole'
In many nearby towns AT&T Broadband offers high-speed Internet and telephone services using the wiring for cable television. However, the towns of Carlisle, Concord and Lincoln, all former Cablevision properties referred to as the "donut hole" because they are surrounded by towns with broadband, have not yet been upgraded to the 750 MHz required for high speed data. (Non-geeks should read "What is broadband?" on page 5.)
Upgrade delayed 2+ years
In the May RFP the town had made this upgrade and extension of wiring throughout the town a condition for renewal. Though AT&T has agreed to do both, the company will not commit to doing so earlier than October 2003. According to members of the cable advisory committee, the company has also refused other important conditions the RFP had specified, instead agreeing only to what the law or regulations require. (A summary of the town's request and the company's response is on page 5. The full documents, including results of surveys conducted by the CCAC and AT&T are available in the town clerk's office at the Town Hall.)
At the August 14 hearing, Rob Travers, AT&T manager of government affairs for the northeastern region, indicated that in fact Carlisle's upgrade had been included in the budget submitted for next year (2002), but that the final decision on scheduling would not be known until December. Travers said that capital for upgrades has been constrained by the company's recent acquisitions (including TCI, Media One, and Nashoba/Cablevision), and the decline of AT&T's stock price. Moreover, more time than expected has been spent analyzing the status of the acquired systems.
Geographic and demographic?
Decisions about scheduling upgrades are driven by both geographic and demographic considerations, Travers said in response to questions from Ray Bahr of Hickory Lane and Jack Laskey of East Riding Drive. The work of rebuilding starts with "head ends" (Carlisle's must be relocated from Westford to Maynard). Then "nodes," the source for wiring to individual houses, are gradually extended from the head end to the surrounding area, town by town. Towns where some investment has been made already will be completed before those with none, so Acton will be fully upgraded before Carlisle's ten nodes are brought along Pope Road, entering the town at a point near West Street.
The company also seeks towns with "desirable" demographics like the "donut hole" towns, with "very high demand for services that will drive the profitability of the system," Travers added, implying that Carlisle will have some priority in the process.
Or purely financial?
However, later in the hearing Bahr, a participant in a newly formed grass roots group organized to advocate for high-speed data services in Carlisle, returned to questioning Travers about what would speed up Carlisle's access to broadband services. To his query, "Is there a way of having a dialogue with the appropriate people?" Travers replied that the corporate finance people would be the ones who could make a decision to upgrade the town sooner.
A fragile negotiating position
CCAC chair Darice Wareham made it clear at the hearing that despite an RFP with clear demands for state-of-the-art services, the committee feels that the town has little leverage over the company. In deciding whether to renew a cable license, the law permits the town to consider only four criteria:
1. whether the company has been in "substantial compliance with the terms of the existing license and applicable law;"
2. the quality of service, including: signal quality, response to consumer complaints; and billing practices. The town is specifically prohibited from considering programming content, except whether the "mix or quality of cable services or other services" has been "reasonable in light of community needs;"
3. whether the company has the financial, legal, and technical ability to provide services, facilities and equipment as proposed;
4. whether the proposal is "reasonable to meet the future cable-related community needs and interests, taking into account the cost of meeting such needs and interests."
Given the quality-of-service problems experienced by Carlisle customers, the town might possibly decline to renew the license, but the committee has little hope that a denial would be upheld. Wareham explained that the company would immediately appeal to the cable division of the state Department of Telecommunications and Energy, which has never upheld a town that refused to renew a cable license.
Though the town is free to license more than one company to provide cable in Carlisle, there has been little or no competition for the license. Wareham described the committee's efforts to interest smaller rival RCN in responding to the RFP. However, that company was willing to wire only major roads, using electric utility NStar's equipment. This was unacceptable to the committee. (AT&T has agreed to extend coverage to the entire town.)
Responding to a question from Ted Shaw of Stoneygate, Wareham said the town might take a "carrot and stick" approach, granting only a short extension of the license and refuse to renew it without an upgrade, or renewing it for a shorter period with a promise to renew for ten years once the upgrade is completed. And, despite the many requests that cannot by law be included in the new license, the committee intends to provide a "letter of instructions" from the town, indicating what the people of the town want from the company.
Suspicion about possible sale
As the company declined to provide many of the requested services, concerns about rumored corporate machinations, especially that a sale of AT&T Broadband may be imminent, were expressed. Bahr and Shaw in particular suggested that AT&T would "bank" the income from current subscribers while looking for a buyer for their cable operations, and the town would be eventually left with a new owner, no upgrade and "no guarantee" of quality service.
Travers assured the hearing that any company that acquires the AT&T cable business would have to "prove it can meet all the obligations of any existing license, so that if [the company has] committed to an upgrade by 2003 [the new company] has to meet that obligation."
The lack of capital for investment was also the subject of angry and suspicious comments from those attending, with several complaining that spending at the same level as last year was in fact a drastic reduction, given the much larger operation.
Poor signals, outages, long waits
Another source of frustration, beyond the lack of high-speed data services/Internet access, expressed at the hearing was citizens' distress about poor signal quality and response to consumer complaints, especially with the inability to report problems due to long waits for complaint calls to be answered. Shaw told of "horrible service;" he experiences "frequent" outages for substantial amounts of time, and has been forced to wait up to two hours on hold to report these problems.
"I'd like to see a substantial penalty whenever you deny me service," he told Travers. Consolidating customer service operations and billing systems of the several newly acquired companies has caused unanticipated difficulties and delay, especially in communities formerly served by Cablevision and Media One, Travers said.
"But why does it take so long to answer a non-billing call?" Shaw countered. The customer service staff is the same size as before the acquisitions, Travers said, and will soon increase by 35 percent, but call volume has doubled this summer over the same period last year. Several in attendance were skeptical, implying that the company might have moved telephone representatives from taking customer service complaints to answering marketing calls as a result of the company's extensive promotion of broadband.
Bahr and Wendell Sykes of Indian Hill Road pursued the point. "If I called to order something, I'd bet some money it'd be a very short wait," Bahr argued. To show that complaint calls are not being answered within the 30 seconds required by law, he and Sykes then both placed calls to the customer service line from cell phones, waiting several minutes each before giving up.
Wareham suggested that "outsourcing" customer service could solve such problems immediately, and Travers said the company was also looking into that. She also suggested that the company establish a separate phone number for customer service complaints and marketing, possibly even separate numbers to report outages.
Selectman Vivian Chaput of Milne Cove Road. told of waiting 45 minutes on a 24-hour "hotline" which was never answered, and asked how service improvements can be guaranteed, particularly if the license is transferred. Chaput is also concerned about recent rate increases. Wareham responded that anything beyond "lifeline" service is not regulated, and that the town is prohibited by state and federal law from any negotiation of rates.
Collaboration with other towns?
Also present at the Carlisle hearing were members of a consortium of cable advisory committees in nearby towns. The group has been sharing information on strategies to ensure that advanced services are provided in their towns, and talking with DSL providers. Despite the appeal of negotiating together, these representatives believe the best leverage they can manage within the constrictions of the law is to arrange for all future licenses in a region to expire at the same time.
Bahr asked whether the community could be aggressive, annoying the company enough to get "what we want," but the representatives from the other towns were discouraging. Dave Levy, co-chair of the Westford Cable Advisory Committee, pointed out that the renewal process takes three years and is a "pain in the neck" for both committees and selectmen. The Town of Ayer has tried extending the license for short periods in the hope that the company would remedy signal quality problems, but with little success, according to Doug Becker of that town's cable committee.
CCAC member and former chair Paul Gill, responding to a suggestion from selectman Tim Hult that the committee examine other towns' license agreements, said the committee made a choice not to draft their own license. Rather, the town submitted a list of requirements, which, he added, the AT&T package did not satisfy.
Citizen input invited
In closing the hearing, Wareham invited townspeople to submit comments and complaints to the committee at firstname.lastname@example.org. She suspects that many Carlisle complaints are not counted as such, and asked that citizens who call AT&T about service problems specifically ask that the call be logged as a complaint.
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