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Telecom behemoths fight for Tampa Bay's attention, money

Mike Robertson, 55, commands Bright House Networks from St. Petersburg's Carillon office park like a cable TV pro with some 22 years under his belt in the Tampa Bay market — braced for whatever his bigger foe throws at him.

Michelle Robinson, 40 and named Verizon's southeast region president last summer, is on a mission to make bigger, richer Verizon the single go-to provider of all network services tied to phones, televisions and PCs for Tampa Bay area households and businesses. That feisty, entrenched Bright House? Bring it on, she says.

Both companies claim lots of Tampa Bay customers but are not specific. (Bright House has more than a million; Verizon's more recent FiOS TV numbers are between 225,000 and 275,000.)

Robertson acknowledges the muscle of Verizon, a company whose national employee numbers approach the population of St. Petersburg. But he points to Bright House's entrenched Bay News 9 local news channel (offered on only Bright House cable) and a customer service record blessed repeatedly by J.D. Power awards as proof of a corporate culture focused on consumers.

While touring Verizon's high-tech FiOS (fiber optic cable TV) network operations center off Tampa's Fowler Avenue, Robinson says she respects Bright House's track record. But she's counting on her company's huge investment in fiber optic capacity to keep it more than competitive as bandwidth demand grows in households and businesses. And she points to Verizon Wireless and the global trend to turn cell phones into go-anywhere entertainment devices as a plus that Bright House — currently without a cell phone product — ultimately will be hard pressed to counter.

Here are two captains in the fast-changing War of Digital telecommunications and entertainment. Their Tampa Bay arsenals of fiber optics, DSL, interactive software and customer service bragging rights are powerful.

But it's hard even for these execs to keep up with all their technology firepower. In a tech world where giants like Dell and Gateway or WorldCom and Blockbuster can be quickly rendered meek, obsolete or merged, there are no guarantees Verizon or Bright House will emerge a full-blown winner here. It's not far-fetched to see new players enter the game by snipping off pieces of the telecom or entertainment pie now enjoyed by these two players.

But for now, the war wages over these services:

• High-definition, increasingly interactive TV with tons of channels? Check.

• Home and business phones with aggressive fixed-price monthly services? Check.

• High-speed Internet with options to choose more blinding Net speeds? Check.

• Service packages, all bundled up in one-price deals? Check.

The two companies' massive marketing budgets aim to make consumers desperately want the latest phone service, Internet speed or whizbang TV capability — all wrapped up in one bundled monthly price typically ranging from $99 to $109, excluding taxes and fees.

You recognize their frequent TV ads — cable guy vs. FiOS guy — because they are as subtle as cavemen. Verizon good, Bright House bad. Or Bright House better, Verizon worse. Ugh.

Bright House emerged after many years of various area cable companies with names like Paragon, Cablevision and Time Warner vying for market share.

Verizon's roots stem from the merger of local phone company GTE and other regional phone companies. What had been a young cable TV effort called GTE Americast was sold off years ago and formed the basis of a third telecom provider called Knology. It serves parts of Pinellas County and Panama City.

So Bright House is a cable TV company pushing into telecom services. And Verizon is a phone company turned telecommunications giant pushing into TV/entertainment services.

Neither company sits still.

Earlier this month in downtown Tampa, Verizon's Joe Ambeault, director of consumer product development in New York City, demonstrated some new interactive services coming for FiOS TV. Among them: links between your TV and the Web that, among other things, can connect social networks like Facebook and Twitter to your TV.

Ambeault used the phrase "shooting behind the duck" to illustrate how tricky it is to develop Verizon services that may already fall behind the fast-moving innovation curve.

Bright House's Robertson counters that his company has a new interactive cable TV guide, more high-definition and new international premium channels, a caller ID service that shows on your PC screen who's calling you on your home phone, and new international calling plans — all coming out this spring.

At Verizon, Robinson says a priority is to keep fighting to cut Florida rules that limit her ability to fund more broadband and next-generation features. As a mother with two boys, she's eager to leverage Verizon's broadband network as a more effective tool for education. She's also a big advocate of electronic medical records — a goal of the Obama administration — which would benefit from a network like Verizon's.

Two captains of two very different companies, doing digital battle at warp speeds. It's a beautiful, if sometimes crazy and confusing competition to watch.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

The telecom-entertainment fight for Tampa Bay's households

Verizon is a national giant with billions to spend and a yen to get government regulation out of the way. Bright House Networks is a smaller, private business with pride in customer service. Each pounds on the other in ads (and interviews!) seeking an edge. The winner? We Floridians. Here is a comparison of their services.

Bright House Networks

Owned by Advance/Newhouse, a private company in Syracuse, N.Y.

TV: More than a million Tampa Bay area customers. Adding more high-definition channels and recent interactive features such as "Start Over," which allows customers to restart a show after it has already begun. Service includes Bay News 9 local news channel.

Internet: Several levels of high-speed Internet access, priced accordingly.

Phone: Digital phone service offers range of fixed-price monthly services with new international calling plans coming in the next month or two.

Wireless: Not offered, a potential Achilles' heel for Bright House as more services, like TV watching and interactive services, show up on cell phones.

Bottom line: If Bright House is David and Verizon is Goliath, Bright House is putting up a good fight so far. It's got a powerful advantage with a well-established Bay News 9, its local news channel, that FiOS can't match. Its J.D. Power-blessed customer service awards give it a consumer-friendly edge. But Verizon is enormous and powerful, and less vulnerable than Goliath.

Verizon

HQ, New York; publicly traded; employees: 10,000 in Tampa Bay area, 224,000 total.

TV: If you haven't heard the pitch that the FiOS (fiber optic) network — with 1.9 million customers nationwide ­—
is a leap ahead, you're not listening. Lots of high-definition channels and more promised interactive features coming. But it's not available everywhere in the bay area, including much of St. Petersburg. Verizon's backup? Satellite service.

Internet: Lots of high-speed connection for those with FiOS, otherwise it's a DSL service over phone lines.

Phone: Remember, this is still the old copper line phone system that GTE used to offer, a highly regulated service
Verizon must still maintain and meet standards mandated by Florida's Public Service Commission.

Wireless: Verizon's cell phone service is considered tops in the country and a strong advantage for the company
as it adds more wireless interactive and entertainment features.

Bottom line: Verizon's got financial staying power but suffers from a legacy landline phone history of bureaucracy and so-so service. FiOS' area footprint is still incomplete. And it lacks a local rival to Bright House's Bay News 9.

Telecom behemoths fight for Tampa Bay's attention, money 03/20/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 9:57am]

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