Thursday, May 22, 2008

Potemkin Village

Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin was a bright guy who exerted an extraordinary amount of energy figuring out ways to get over on his boss, Catherine the Great. To prove that he hadn’t wasted blood and treasure in the conquering of the wasteland that was Crimea, Grigori constructed facades, moved sheep from fake village to fake village and even had roaring campfires burning, as he led Catherine on river tours of his conquests. Grigori’s abilities of deception would make any Hollywood director proud.

I’ve had employees like that. Instead of actually doing the work, they go to great lengths to make it seem as if they have done the work. Actually if they had done what they were supposed to do in the first place it probably would have taken less time and energy. And because they’re so deeply dedicated to keeping the shell game going at the end of the day you realize that you’ve ended up with nothing and that nothing cost you plenty.

Ah, North Carolina.

The Tar Heel State passed state issued video franchising two years ago in a breathless rush to get at&t to bring competition to its residents. Those were heady days that saw state legislators practically swooning like school girls on prom night. They just couldn’t get a home run fast enough. Here we are two years later and what we got? Nothing, that’s what. Not one stretch of fiber laid, not one house passed, not one refrigerator sized box installed.

It gets better. Seems a friend of mine who is an Executive Director of a Public access center was hanging out around his house in North Carolina when who should come to the door? A salesman for at&t. The salesman began spouting the triple play.

“We got phone for you. We got internet for you. We got Dish Network for you. All in one. Bundled, mind you, at heavily discounted prices!”

My friend informed the fellow that because he runs the Public access channel he has to be able to receive that channel in his home, if only to check on it from time to time to make sure the playback is running correctly.

The fellow said “We carry the Public access channels.”

My friend said “No you don’t, they’re not on satellite.”

The fellow said “Yes we do.”

My friend said “No you don’t.”

It ended in impasse with the at&t guy wondering why my friend didn’t want to take advantage of all that competition the state legislature had so lovingly created. The competition that was supposed to go head to head with Time Warner and finally once and for all, break the back of the cable monopoly!

A little later, my friend and I were present at a presentation by a nice young man who worked for at&t. During the presentation we learned some interesting things about UVerse. For instance, did you know that at&t can only deliver one High Definition “stream” into a household at a time. So if your wife is upstairs watching Lifetime in HD and you are watching the University of North Carolina game downstairs, you won’t be able to get the game in HD because she’s hogging the only HD stream that comes into your house. That brings fighting over the remote to a whole new level. To their credit at&t is working quite hard these days to figure out a way to bring a second HD stream into the home. I’m sure some kind of memo will go out when they finally achieve that goal.

And speaking of “streams” at&t can only deliver four streams at a time. Let’s say it’s the bottom of the ninth in the world series, tied score, all bases are loaded, you got two outs and baseball’s greatest hitter ever just walked up to the plate. At that moment, little Johnny has decided to watch Sponge Bob Square Pants on your 5th tv. The second he turns it on, your set goes dark. That rotten kid has just pre-empted your stream!

That nice young man presenting then said something about how from time to time they need to actually re-wire your house in order to provide UVerse. I guess not all twisted copper wire is the same, I guess at&t is using some new fancy schmancy twisted copper wire. Who knew?

We also learned that at&t will be offering both UVerse and Dish Network in North Carolina. And they’re bragging in their promotional materials for Dish Network that they deliver more HD channels than cable. And when it comes to comparing their Dish Network against their UVerse, anything greater than one HD channel is an improvement. That one has me puzzled. You have to build infrastructure of some form or another in order to deliver the UVerse product, but if people can just go ahead and take the Dish Network, then why in the heck would you build infrastructure in the first place? Doesn’t seem like a sound business model to me.

Meanwhile all the muck that has been the fallout of a bad piece of legislation, including reduced payments to municipalities and the threats to PEG channels, has been the only tangible result of the quest for the holy grail of competition.

It all makes me think about Grigori and his ruse. The irony is that the state motto for North Carolina is Esse Quam Videri. Latin for “To Be, Rather Than To Seem.” Too bad the legislators didn’t have that in front of them when they boarded the at&t bus to nowhere.

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