Arlington County is in the process of negotiating with Comcast for a new long term franchise agreement, but they’ve run out of time. That’s why they’re requesting a one year extension, which will be examined at Saturday’s Arlington County Board meeting.
Franchise agreements, which allow cable and video service providers to operate in a locality, typically are negotiated once every 10-15 years. Comcast took over an existing franchise agreement in 2000 and that expired in June of this year. In June, the County Board approved a six month temporary contract extension, which ends this month. Because both parties are still hashing out details of a long term agreement, they submitted the request currently before the Board for another temporary extension, to expire in December of 2014.
“The purpose of the extension is to give us time to negotiate the best deal we can with Comcast,” said the county’s Cable Administrator Rob Billingsley. “Rather than put the agreement in any kind of peril, the idea is that the Board passes, hopefully, that extension so we do have that time. All parties agree to do this, it’s not at all controversial.”
Both parties are required by law to keep the negotiations confidential. Billingsley did say, however, that the meetings have been successful and productive thus far.
“Because these agreements last as long as do, there’s some complexity to it,” Billingsley explained. “You’re not rushing it and you’re getting the best deal possible.”
The long term contracts allow Comcast to use the county’s “rights of way” such as streets and sidewalks. In exchange, Comcast provides free public education and government TV channels, in addition to grants and equipment for producing shows on those channels. The county also receives approximately five percent of Comcast’s gross revenue in Arlington, which is first routed through the state due to tax requirements and then heads back into the county’s general fund.
Part of the cable franchise renewal process involves examining Comcast’s past performance and determining future services to be included in the new agreement. There was a public meeting to discuss such desired services back in September of 2011.
County staff is recommending the County Board approve the temporary contract extension on Saturday.
W-L Softball Field Approved — The Arlington County Board has unanimously approved use permits for a new softball field at Washington-Lee High School. The $1 million field will include lighting, grandstands, and a press box.
Comcast Doubling Internet Speeds — Arlington is one of the areas where Comcast is increasing its internet speeds this week. The company says it’s doubling the internet speeds of Arlington customers who currently have the Blast 25 Mbps or the Extreme 50 Mbps internet service, at no additional cost. “This is the seventh time since 2002 that Comcast has increased speeds for its customers,” Comcast spokeswoman Alisha Martin said.
Encore’s ‘Pirates of Penzance’ Reviewed — The Encore Stage and Studio production of “The Pirates of Penzance” — currently playing at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theater at 125 S. Old Glebe Road — is “two hours of solid entertainment for all ages,” according to a newspaper review. [Sun Gazette]
As of 9:30 a.m. on Monday, 27,586 Dominion customers were still without power, down from 59,000 at noon on Saturday. The company says it has 4,200 employees and contractors working to restore power to customers in all affected areas, but notes that the huge scale of the damage is making restoration a multi-day process.
“Many poles and cross arms need to be replaced, and other infrastructure needs to be rebuilt,” Dominion said in a press release.
Verizon says it’s working “around the clock” to restore phone, internet and TV service. According to spokesman Harry J. Mitchell:
As with most services in the immediate aftermath of the storms — a situation faced by more than a million residences and businesses throughout the Washington metropolitan area — Verizon has been making every effort to assess damages to its facilities and immediately had crews working to get services back online. However, due to extensive commercial power outages across the entire region, our crews have had to deal with a number of technical and mechanical challenges, in addition to storm damage such as downed poles and trees on our wires.
A power issue in one of our Arlington facilities has created several issues that we’re currently working through, including difficulty some callers are having when dialing 911 in Fairfax and Prince William counties. These counties’ 911 centers now are receiving most calls, and we continue to work diligently to restore full calling to them.
We’re working late hours — often around the clock — and bringing in additional technicians from other parts of our service area to assist in bringing service back as quickly as we possibly can. We appreciate customers’ continued patience as we work to restore services in the wake of one of the worst storms in recent memory.
Comcast, meanwhile, is also facing significant service issues in Arlington in the wake of the storm. Last night many Twitter users reported that their Comcast TV and internet service had gone out, despite it working earlier in the day. According to Comcast spokeswoman Aimee N. Metrick:
At this time it appears most issues are directly related to commercial power outages, and for the vast majority of people, service should be restored as power comes back on to their homes. However, given the severity of the winds and rain that arose from this storm, we are also seeing some more extensive damage caused by falling trees, poles and more that will take longer to repair.
We are working closely with state and local emergency personnel and power companies, and have employees working across the footprint to assess and repair damage in impacted areas once provided clearance that it’s safe to do so. We appreciate our customers’ patience and understanding, and will continue to work until service has been restored for all.
With temperatures again expected to climb into the 90s, Arlington County’s libraries and community centers are open today as cooling centers for those without power. Among the centers that will be open are:
- Aurora Hills Community and Senior Center (10am-3pm)
- Barcroft Sports and Fitness Center (8 am-10:30pm)
- Carver Community Center (9am-9pm)
- Charles Drew Community Center (3pm-9pm)
- Fairlington Community Center (8am-9pm)
- Gunston Community Center (2pm-9pm)
- Langston-Brown Community Center (9am-10pm)
- Lee Community Center (9:30am-6pm)
- Madison Community Center (9am-9pm)
- Thomas Jefferson Community Center (6am-10pm)
- Walter Reed Community Center (8am-10pm)
Arlington’s libraries — including Central, Aurora Hills, Glencarlyn, Shirlington, Westover — are scheduled to be open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. today. Yesterday Central Library and Shirlington Branch Library stayed open until 11:00 p.m. to accommodate those who lost power. According to the library blog, some 600 people were crammed into Central Library yesterday afternoon. The fire department also set up a temporary spray park at Central Library to help kids cool off.
The Cherrydale and Columbia Pike libraries are closed today due to lack of power. Also closed is the Lubber Run Community Center, the Long Branch Nature Center, some schools and some summer camps. See a full list of county closures here.
Dogma Bakery in Shirlington (2772 S. Arlington Mill Drive) is remaining open until 9:00 tonight and welcoming pets and owners who need a cool place at which to hang out. Owner Sheila Raebel — whose own house is without power — says she has set up chairs and tables after finding out that other cooling centers weren’t necessarily welcoming pets.
“We had people who were asking about it,” she said. “We found out the county… doesn’t have a place for people with their pets to come when it’s really hot. There are a lot of dogs who are older and a lot of cats who can’t live in a place where it’s 85 degrees”
The store’s Lee Highway location is currently closed due to lack of power.
Flickr pool photo by ddimick
As a result of the outage, librarians are checking out customers by hand at Arlington Central Library, according to library spokesman Peter Golkin. All internet at the library, including access to the library catalog system, is down. Customers at the library can still access the catalog via their smart phones, however.
Most Arlington Public Schools south of Route 50 are also experiencing the same problems, according to a school employee. Phone and internet service has been down at the schools since 2:00 p.m., around the same time Central Library lost its phone and data service.
In both cases, we’re told a problem with a Comcast fiber optic line is to blame. Comcast is hoping to have the problem fixed by tomorrow, Golkin said.
Update at 8:45 a.m. — All services have been restored to Central Library, Golkin says.
The ‘franchise agreement’ that allows Comcast to provide cable television services in Arlington County is up for renewal, and residents are being asked to share their thoughts on what services the company can provide as part of a new franchise agreement.
Currently, Comcast helps to equip Arlington County’s government access channel, the Arlington Virginia Network, and helps to fund Arlington Independent Media, the independently-run public access channel. It also provides the fiber optic network and internet access service used by Arlington County government and Arlington Public Schools.
At tonight’s meeting, residents are encouraged to “share your own comments on potential services that might be part of a new cable franchise agreement.”
The meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the County Board room at 2100 Clarendon Boulevard. The county-produced video, above, and the Comcast Cable Renewal Process page of the Arlington County website provide more information about the process.
Aurora Hills Babysitter Co-Op — While the District has been ranked as the most expensive place in the country for childcare, parents in the Aurora Hills neighborhood, near Crystal City, have banded together to save money by taking care of each other’s kids. The Aurora Hills babysitting co-op is “just a group of moms helping each other out,” according to one of the members. [MyFoxDC]
Seasonal Green Chiles Arrive in Arlington — A shipment of green chiles, fresh from the famous growing region of Hatch, N.M., has arrived at Santa Fe Cafe (1500 Wilson Blvd) in Rosslyn. The restaurant is expecting to receive about 100 pounds of Hatch green chiles throughout September. Owner Kip Laramie says he’ll be using the flavorful, spicy ingredient to serve dishes like locally smoked pork chop with green chile peach chutney, grilled spinach with green chile quesadilla, and red snapper with artichokes, mushrooms and green chiles. [Rosslyn Blog]
Public Forum Planned for Comcast Renewal — Comcast is seeking to renew its cable franchise agreement with the county, and a public meeting is planned to give residents a chance to share their thoughts on the company’s service in Arlington. Officials are specifically seeking ideas for public services that Comcast can provide as part of a new franchise agreement. The meeting will be held on at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 13, in the County Board room of 2100 Clarendon Boulevard. [Arlington County]
ARLnow Mobile Site Disabled — We’ve temporarily disabled the mobile version of our web site. Web-enabled mobile phone users visiting ARLnow.com will now see the full version of the site. We expect to have the mobile site back up by Monday.
Flickr pool photo by Philliefan99
A week ago Comcast rolled out a new on-screen guide for digital cable customers in Arlington.
The new guide was touted in mailings as faster and easier to use with a few new features that had been requested by customers. Many local customers, however, have taken to our comments section to blast the new guide, which eliminated the sleep timer and picture-in-a-picture functions that were available with the old guide.
Now that you’ve had a week to try it out, how do you feel about the “upgrade?”
Screen capture via Comcast
Comcast Digital TV customers in Arlington will start getting a new on-screen guide this week.
The new guide will feature “faster On Demand access, a more user-friendly interface, more detailed program information, improved DVR and search functionality and a convenient menu of shortcuts,” according to Comcast.
Other features include easier access to HD channels through a “quick menu,” expanded parental controls, the ability to save multiple “favorite channel” lists, a “message center,” and local weather information.
“This week, we are launching a new on-screen program guide for our Arlington Digital TV customers that is designed to deliver an improved TV viewing experience,” Comcast public relations manager Alisha Martin tells ARLnow.com. “The changes to the guide are based upon the feedback we’ve received from our customers, who have asked for a faster, easier-to-use interface with increased functionality… The technology will also pave the way for additional enhancements in the future.”
Martin says customers in Arlington should start seeing the new on-screen guide this week. Those customers will notice new colors and configurations in their guides, including color coding for certain programming, like movies, sports and kids programs.
Moran: Arlington an Example for the Nation — Rep. Jim Moran (D) says that Arlington’s transit-oriented growth sets an example for other communities to follow. For communities currently lacking such infrastructure, Moran says that tax policy can be used to help entice developers to build near transit hubs. [WAMU]
Death Penalty May Be Dividing Line in Race — The death penalty may be a key difference between the two Democrats who are running for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Arlington. “The death penalty doesn’t have a place in a civilized society,” said one candidate, defense attorney David Deane, in a recent appearance. His opponent, Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, has previously said she supports capital punishment in certain circumstances. [Sun Gazette]
Public Access Idea for Comcast — In response to the news that the county is holding focus groups regarding the upcoming renewal of Comcast’s cable franchise in Arlington, one blogger has floated an idea for a different type of ‘public access’ channel. The idea: allow members of the general public to upload videos to a ‘staging server’ where they would be reviewed, screened for inappropriate content and then broadcast in rotation with other community-generated videos. [Ode Street Tribune]
Every 10-15 years, the ‘franchise agreement’ that gives one company a virtual monopoly over cable TV service in Arlington is put up for review. The current agreement with Comcast is expiring in 2013, and the county is asking for citizen input into whether it should renew the company’s franchise, and under what conditions.
Right now, if you exclude fiber optic TV provider Verizon FiOS, Comcast is Arlington’s sole cable provider. Under its current franchise agreement, Comcast provides a number of guarantees, including customer service standards, regular system testing and maintenance, and free internet service for Arlington Public Schools. It also makes annual contributions to support the television channels run by the county government, county schools and by public access organization Arlington Independent Media. (About one percent of your cable bill goes to support AIM.)
Arlington, a lucrative market for cable operators, must now decide what to ask for as part of another 10-15 year agreement with Comcast. As part of that process, the county will be holding a number of focus groups that will discuss ways to improve cable service and while providing additional community benefits.
The focus groups will involve specific interest groups with a stake in the outcome of the franchise negotiations. A total of eight focus groups — each open to the general public — are planned for the month of June. Among them:
- K-12 Schools, Teachers, Staff, Students, and Parents (June 16)
- Local Government Agencies and Departments (June 20)
- Emergency Services, Federal Agencies & Institutional Network (June 20)
- Non Profit, Health and Human Service Organizations, Civic Societies and Groups (June 21)
- Arts, Culture, Music and Heritage (June 21)
- Churches and Faith-Based Organizations (June 22)
- Neighborhood Organizations, County Board Commissions (June 22)
- Higher Education, Healthcare Institutions, and Businesses (June 23)
“These focus groups… provide a chance for interested community members to learn about the franchise renewal and to share opinions about future services that could be available to our community through the Comcast cable system,” the county said in a press release. “The process of granting a new franchise to Comcast deserves serious consideration and public input.”
See more information on the meetings on the county’s web site. The focus groups will be conducted by The Buske Group, a consulting firm that’s assisting the county during the franchise renewal process.
Two days after we reported about a delay in Comcast’s plan to switch on additional HD channels for Arlington customers, the company has managed to get the promised channels up and running.
As of this morning, channels including CNBC HD, Comedy Central HD, BET HD and ESPNews HD were up and running. Also available was truTV HD, which is carrying a number of NCAA March Madness basketball games.
The new additions were made between channel numbers 800 and 900.
The channels were originally supposed to be available on March 15, according to a mailing sent to customers. After they missed the self-imposed deadline, Comcast told an Arlington County official that the channels were to be switched on no later than March 24.
Hat tip to @reidjoshua
Update on 3/18/11 — The channels are now available.
In a mailing that went out last month, Comcast told Arlington County customers that they would be getting “The World of More” — the company’s phrase for a slew of additional high-definition channels — on March 15.
Alas, that date has come and gone and the channels are nowhere to be seen. In fact, the only noticeable change in the past two weeks is that customers can no longer receive basic cable channels without a digital converter.
We’ve been unable to get in touch with Comcast’s PR department, but Arlington County Cable Administrator Rob Billingsley says the company has told him that it will be at least a week until the first batch of new HD channels reaches local television sets.
March 24 is now the date when channels including Comedy Central HD, BET HD and truTV HD will be switched on. The lack of truTV in HD will be a big disappointment for college basketball fans — the channel will be airing nearly a dozen NCAA March Madness games this week, including two first-round games tonight.
Other HD channels are now scheduled to come online on April 7. Those channels — including ESPNews HD, Fox Business HD and IFC HD — were originally promised on March 15, as well.
Update on 3/17/11 — A Comcast rep says all HD channels that were originally scheduled to come online on March 15 will be available no later than March 24.
According to Billingsley, the company said they were delayed in turning off the analog cable channels earlier this month. By making those channels digital-only, Comcast freed up bandwidth for the HD channels. However, no formal explanation was given for why the HD channels were still delayed.
The confusion comes at a time when Comcast’s cable monopoly in Arlington is up for review. The Comcast franchise expires on June 30, 2013, and over the weekend the county board approved a resolution that will start an official evaluation of the company’s performance.
Billingsley says the review will likely consist of public hearings and surveys that will look at Comcast’s technology, performance and customer service. Our informal poll of satisfaction with Comcast revealed strong negative opinions about the company.
Comcast recently mailed informational material to customers regarding the changes, and earlier notified the county’s Cable Television Policy and Administration office of its plans.
Starting on or about March 3, Comcast will stop transmitting most basic cable channels in analog. Instead, anybody who currently watches cable TV without using a set-top box or a CableCARD device (like TiVo) will need to get a digital adapter to see the channels. Comcast is offering up to two digital adapters free of charge, with each additional adapter priced at $1.99 per month.
The switch from analog will free up space for new HD channels. Comcast will offer about 50 new HD channels to Arlington customers, most of which will be included in the Digital Starter cable package. Many of the new channels will be rolled out on March 15, with a few other channels set to come on-line on April 12.
Comcast is in the midst of a nationwide transition to all-digital and Arlington is just the latest area to get the service, which the company has alternately dubbed “Xfinity” and “The World of More.”
Last month, an ARLnow.com poll of nearly 800 people indicated that many local residents are unhappy with the quality of Comcast’s service.
Robert Billingsley, Cable Administrator for Arlington County, said that anyone who has unresolved complaints about their cable service can instead contact his office at 703-228-3242. He said his office gets about 15 complaints about Comcast per month, compared to 7 to 8 complaints per month about Verizon FiOS.
See a list of the new HD channels, after the jump.
In a poll we conducted yesterday, nearly three quarters of respondents rated their overall experience with Comcast “poor” or “very, very bad.” The comments section generally reflected the same sentiment.
In the article that accompanied the poll, we also mentioned Verizon’s FiOS service, saying that it helps protect consumers by giving them a viable alternative to cable.
Within just a few hours of the article being published, representatives from both Comcast and Verizon called and emailed us and left notes in the comments section.
Comcast, to their credit, was solely concerned with looking into the frustrating personal experiences with customer service that were mentioned in the article and in the comments. Kudos to them for that.
Verizon, unsurprisingly, appreciated our words of support for the continued expansion of FiOS service into local apartment and condo buildings.
Local Verizon sales manager Mark Harrington said he personally agreed that “any service provider, including Verizon, has been shown to be more responsive where there is the real option of being fired by our customers.” He shared the following information and advice for anyone who would like to get FiOS service in their community.
We’re trying to get to as much of Arlington as quickly as we can with our Verizon FiOS service. If you live in a condo or apartment building… I generally advise residents to make their voices heard with their board or property manager and have those people contact us.
We’ve reached out to every property we can and have successfully built out many at Verizon’s expense, but with others we have not yet, either because the owners have not yet granted permission, we haven’t been able to contact them, or in some cases we are still working on the fiber build to reach a few areas of Arlington.
Our website with more information for property owners is here…
Last night I had my most horrid Comcast customer service experience to date, and that’s really saying something. I’ll spare the details, but suffice to say that it was an hour and a half of my all-too-rare free time that I’m not getting back.
It’s not so much that the Comcast customer service agents themselves are that bad, it’s just that the customer service system in which they operate seems to be designed with the sole purpose of minimizing cost at the expense of producing meaningful solutions to customers’ problems and complaints.
Comcast has a partial monopoly in Arlington. Sure, Verizon FiOS and satellite TV are available to single family homes and certain apartment buildings and condos. But for many apartment and condo-dwellers, Comcast is the only game in town. The only option for those folks in the event of an unresolved grievance is to either grin and bear it, cancel service and forgo cable and/or internet altogether, or complain to the county’s cable administration office and hope for the best.
Competition is a customer’s best friend — a point of leverage in disputes. With any luck, FiOS will continue making inroads and internet-based TV will continue evolving into a viable alternative. Until that time, however, Comcast will continue to exasperate and frustrate those for whom going without internet or cable television service is not an option.
Rate your Comcast experience below, and feel free to vent in the comments. Who knows, maybe someone in a regulatory position will be listening.