The Little Rock city map that Mike Wilson and Len Pitcock unrolled on the carpet looked like it had the chicken pox: dozens of red dots, each representing a newly-installed, refrigerator-sized “node” from which their rival AT&T hopes to start sending out Internet Protocol TV — Internet-based, cable-style television programming — to subscribers. As Wilson (VP of governmental affairs with Comcast Cable) and Pitcock (spokesman for the Arkansas Cable Telecommunications Association) are happy to point out, the red dots are a full-blown rash in the richer parts of West Little Rock, while the poorer neighborhoods downtown and south of I-630 are almost dot free. It’s proof-positive (for them, at least) of something cable providers across the country have been saying for over a year: that when it comes to IPTV — an all-digital service promising Jetsons-grade features like picture-in-picture channel surfing and multiple camera angles of live events — AT&T plans to target “high value” customers while leaving the poorer “low value” customers behind.
“AT&T has been very clear to Wall Street that they plan to provide this service to 90 percent of the high value customers, 70 percent of the medium value customers, and just five percent of the low value customers,” Wilson said. “That’s determined by what people spend on telecommunications.”
The cable guys’ map (to be fair, a map produced by a Comcast-hired survey team) might be the perfect illustration of a struggle that has been coming to a head in Little Rock for months. Comcast claims that AT&T is setting up an unfair advantage for itself, refusing to play by the same rules the cable company agreed to in its franchise agreement with the city. AT&T, meanwhile, promises IPTV will break the Comcast monopoly in Little Rock, offering choice and bringing down costs for local consumers; Comcast, they say, will do anything to keep their very profitable status quo. It’s a forthcoming war in which a major skirmish might be decided July 11, when the City Board votes whether or not to ratify an 11-page agreement with AT&T — the first governmental hurdle to the company offering IPTV in Little Rock.
In the agreement (which will be good through 2009 if ratified) AT&T states that it believes the company is not required to secure a franchise agreement “or other authorization” with the city — like the cable franchise agreement currently in place with Comcast. “AT&T further believes that the City’s right to regulate the construction of the IP network in the city’s (Right of Way) is limited to the right to impose reasonable conditions regarding the time, place, and manner of AT&T Arkansas’s use and occupation of the city’s ROW.”
In the proposed agreement, AT&T promises to:
• Provide “some form of access” to the city’s public, educational and government (PEG) programming — probably via broadband Internet broadcasts in the short term.
• Pay the city 5 percent of the gross revenue collected for IPTV services.
• Pay the city an additional 10 cents per month per subscriber once PEG channel go online
• Provide an apparatus for alerting IPTV viewers to a public safety emergency “as soon as it is technically feasible to do so.”
• In a nod to the cable companies’ often-heard complaint that AT&T doesn’t plan to offer the same service to everyone when it comes to IPTV, the agreement goes on to say that AT&T “intends to” offer video service to anyone residing in Little Rock, regardless of income or minority status. In the case of those living more than several hundred yards from an IPTV node, the service offered would be a satellite-based AT&T product called Homezone. Currently, it is technologically impossible to offer PEG channels and local emergency broadcast features over satellite-based television.
On the issue of emergency broadcasts, Pitcock says that AT&T’s promises to provide them when technically able are another facet of the company’s desire to dodge the rules that Comcast has been playing by for years. “These weren’t words that they allowed the cable companies to use,” He said. “For cable, they took out the words “when technologically feasible” and replaced them with the word “shall.”
For their part, Wilson and Pitcock are concerned that the agreement between AT&T and the city might already be a done deal, citing a dedicated lobbying campaign in recent months by the telecom giant (Comcast has mounted an extensive lobbying campaign of its own, of course). The 6 p.m. July 11 meeting, they fear, might well be a rubber stamp for AT&T, with members suspending board rules and rushing through a vote before Comcast is allowed to present a case and in order to keep the measure from facing public scrutiny. Wilson has asked the board to allow an extended period of public comment.
Ted Wagnon, spokesman for AT&T Arkansas, believes that the long and the short of it is that Comcast doesn’t want competition. He said that customers want and deserve choices, and that the arguments Comcast brings up against AT&T and IPTV are only an attempt to keep a competitor out of the market. With the plan to install IPTV nodes in Little Rock ongoing, Wagnon said that Comcast’s map doesn’t show the whole picture. “This is a three-year plan,” he said. “So any map that you looked at would be an incomplete map, and I certainly wouldn’t rely on a map that came from somewhere outside this company.”
Wagnon said that the company has made every effort to provide Board members with information about their position, as has Comcast. “I believe the city directors will weigh all the facts and reach a conclusion that is good for the city and the citizens of this city,” Wagnon said. “We look forward to the public discussion on the 11th, and possibly to a vote at that time.”
City Board Member Genevieve Stewart said that while she has met with representatives of both Comcast and AT&T, as well as receiving what she called “stacks” of e-mails and letters from constituents, she still hasn’t made up her mind. To her knowledge, the idea that the vote on the AT&T agreement has already been decided behind closed doors is unfounded.
“Nothing is set in stone,” she said. “I’m still being presented information. I’m still meeting [with AT&T and Comcast], so there’s no way I could sit up here and say: Okay, I’m ready to vote. They both still have something to say and something to present.”