The REAL problem with Brookline’s Cable– at the ascertainment hearing

Brookline | Media | Building/Consensus
I took a break last Thursday from the bustle of online activism to see some real government in action. I went to the Cable Ascertainment Hearing in Brookline, at the Public Safety building across the street from Town Hall. The meeting, as I learned, would not a forum for policy, but actually a lecture on electrical engineering. What a treat for the dozen or so people who had showed up for the hearing! With Comcast’s funding, Brookline had commissioned a consulting engineer, William Pohts to investigate the safety of the wiring and of the transmission leaks according to federal and industry guidelines. The old cable infrastructure in Boston/Brookline has been notoriously bad throughout its twenty-plus year history.

But there was some preliminary time devoted to some public comment. Selectman Gil Hoy noted that the town could not negotiate rates and plans with Comcast (which are state and federal regulated), but was looking to hear a few items of interest. Here were some of the public comments:

– A member of the Commission for the Disabled got up first to request that the local town meetings broadcast in closed-caption. With that, he left. This meeting was being taped and transcribed, for anyone interested. Neither is available on the committee website, so I will have to check over at Town Hall one of these days. If nothing else, to verify some of the quotes here.

– An old man in a blazer and tie gave a curious summation of the crimes of Cablevision, which included allegations of culpability in deaths of repairmen by electrical shock and by falling from utility poles. I’m passing on researching any more of this, but I suppose his lawyer may take an interest. Nonetheless, he felt that the Comcast (which replaced AT&T which bought Cablevision) was a good company, by virtue of their having withdrawn their offer to buy Disney.

– Richard Lanza, of Kenwood St., who would chuckle with his wife throughout the engineering presentation later, gave some testimony on some monkey business that he had in fact filed a complaint on. A few months ago, they finally cut the cord to Comcast, and switched to RCN. Shortly thereafter, their cable went out, and he went to the cable junction box to investigate. Someone had pried open the box, and stuck a cable terminator on his connection. “I have it right here!” he beamed as he produced it from his pocket. An RCN engineer who investigated this remarked that it looked like just the type of terminator used by… Comcast.

– I gave my pitch for a la carte cable in Brookline. I pointed out the cost concerns that came up at the last meeting, and mentioned that this could a compromise. I mentioned that the Congress was looking into this issue as well, though it could an antitrust issue like U.S. vs. Paramount against the studios. Peter Epstein, the town’s general counsel, agreed with my comments, and mentioned that regarding local action, “There’s a first for everything.” I wish I had known who exactly the Comcast representatives were in the room– I only learned at the end of Pohts’s presentation. (One thing I forgot to mention in my three-minute talk: this website. next time.)

– A man named Bruce Wolf who was sitting next to me got up to speak and revealed that he lived in public housing on Pleasant St. “Let me repeat that– public housing!” he bellowed. He pointed out that many of his fellow tenants had fixed incomes and none-too-happy about rising cable rates. But, building on my idea he looked my way and remarked “I think that young man had a good about cable pricing. I don’t want to pay for everything.”

The next person who gestured my way while speaking was the consulting engineer, William Pohts. He had a folksy way of presenting his findings. Pohts, a Virginian, gave up on trying to pronounce Amory St. (where the local cable facilities had been until recently; locals use a long AY to start the name). Relevant to his study, he found that transmission leaks were among the worst he’d ever come across. 57% of the tested locations failed to meet FCC signal level standards. One of the consequences is the ghost interference lines on TV screens known as “ingress”– apparent in 92% of household sets (which could fixed in some places by tightening the connections) and 55% of outside locations tested. This, in addition to Comcast’s messy cabling and sloppy paperwork filed for FCC-mandate testings. Such filings include 600 specific leakages of 20 microvolts per meter.

And here’s where Pohts points to me. He noted in his talk that newer cable systems throughout the country were now testing for stricter 5 microvolts per meter for their new digital services. “And you, Mr. Computer Guy, that interference might cause real trouble with your computer.” Well, as I told Pohts later, and emailed Selectman Hoy later, this should have been more specific. Transmission interference would not cause any real harm to any Internet user. If it resulted in transmission errors, the TCP protocol demands that the packets be re-sent. Still, as the official report concluded, it’s nice to have clean transmissions which don’t interfere with other systems and which confirm to standards.

But, it was nice to hear Comcast get grilled. Pohts finally outed the reps in the audience, smugly noting that this was the first time, in hundreds of similar studies, that his handlers for the cable company could not show him everything he asked to see. At the end of the meeting, one of the Comcast regional reps gave a prepared statement which essentially said, “Comcast is committed to our communities, and I really want to get home for dinner.” So did I, after two hours. Civic involvement is fun, but not for the impatient.