Competition means that everybody's supposed to get in on the fun

Jim BartholdThe best television show ever, HBO's The Wire, was on the surface about cops and bad guys--but even the surface was muddled because the cops could be the bad guys and the bad guys had redeeming qualities. Beneath the surface, though, The Wire was really about Baltimore and the more you watched the more you felt a kinship with this little city tucked between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

The Wire made it clear that Baltimore, though, was more than just another decayed American city; it was every American city. So when a Verizon exec last week said that the telco hadn't forgotten Baltimore in its FiOS rollout--despite evidence to the contrary--it inflamed my cynicism.

"Through our people and technology, we are a part of Baltimore in every way," Tabb Bishop, regional vice president-government affairs for Verizon Maryland-Washington, D.C. wrote in an op-ed piece for the Baltimore Sun.

Just not in a FiOS way which makes it difficult not to leap to the conclusion that that's because Baltimore doesn't fit the upscale community profile needed to make the extraordinarily expensive FiOS pay back on Verizon investment.

"A number of communities, including Baltimore, are not targeted for video franchises," Bishop added. "Verizon will keep in close communications with city officials in the event our FiOS plans change at some point in the future."

In other words, competition for all--as long as the all fits the overall strategic plan.

Competition is a telecom buzzword that may even have usurped such long-time clichés as convergence and, my personal favorite, clearly. Clearly you have to understand that 'clearly' is a term overused everywhere and that competition is in the eyes of the beholder. Verizon's eyes don't behold Baltimore as part of their competitive master scheme so Baltimore isn't part of the FiOS landscape.

Midway across the country but in an unarguably similar situation, Minnesota legislators rammed through a bill to help smaller telcos get into a market and mix it up with cable incumbents.

The bill directly addressed a situation between cable provider Mediacom and the community of Prior Lake which had tried to offer a TV franchise to telco Integra sans a provision that the whole community must be covered. Mediacom had to cover all of Prior Lake under its franchise agreement so it was understandably upset about the omission and took the matter to court. Legislators, worried that a defeat in court would lead to a lack of competition because telcos or overbuilders couldn't pick and choose their competitive zones, passed a bill that in a nutshell said a telco can come in, get a cable franchise and cover only a portion of the franchise area.

The idea is to help telcos compete with incumbents--although better service in a free market seems to do the job as well. The precedent has been set so other states are watching and thinking.

In real estate lingo, blocking off certain areas as desirable and others as undesirable is called redlining. In cruder terms, it's called cherrypicking. Whatever you want to call it, when competitors aren't required to come in and compete on level footing with the incumbent, it's not true competition.

Sure, the incumbents have an infrastructure advantage but they're cable operators so they also have the built-in disadvantage of being about as popular as another tax hike. If there's a need for a competitor to come into a market, there's a need for that competitor to come into the whole market, whether it's Verizon's entire footprint or the whole of a community like Prior Lake.

Otherwise, it's redlining and that doesn't seem to achieve the purpose of open competition for everyone. -Jim