Robbins Calls for a `Fair Ballgame'


Newport, R.I. -- Baby Bell entry into video on terms and conditions never given to cable companies would represent unfair competition, Cox Communications Inc. CEO James Robbins said here Thursday.

"I don't think that's a fair ballgame," he said, adding that his views were not designed to block competition. "I want the other guys to come in, bring them all on, but bring them on under the same set of rules. That's all we are asking for."

Phone-company interest in overbuilding cable companies was a widely discussed topic by Robbins and other panelists at the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association's annual summer conference here.

Comcast Corp. executive vice president David Cohen said local franchising of video providers -- something SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. would like to see eliminated or greatly scaled back -- was not enshrined in federal law 21 years ago merely to shield cable from competition.

"The debate seems to be that local franchising is about barriers to competitive entry. Last time I checked, that is not what Congress was doing when they created a franchise obligation in [federal law]," Cohen said. "There were important policies of localism that could best be protected through a constrained franchising process."

Cable companies are particularly concerned that phone companies will target affluent enclaves and serve minorities and the poor when they feel like it. Local franchising, Cohen added, ensures "nondiscriminatory rollout so that you can ensure that the benefits of competition are made available to everyone, not just wealthy white people who live in suburban communities."

SBC and Verizon have said that local franchising is redundant because they already have permission to occupy local rights of way to provide local phone service. The two telcos have suggested that a policy of wiring every home and office for broadband before signing up a single customer just serves to delay much-needed video competition.

Congress is working on legislation expected to address franchising requirements.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said his message to Congress is that it should treat all wire-line video providers the same.

"You shouldn't have different rules for different providers of services," he added. "I am confident, even though there are going to be a lot of legislative battles, that at the end of the day, that's how it will turn out."