Bell companies are accused of 'redlining' neighborhoods

May 24, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Charging that the regional Bell companies are "redlining" poor and minority neighborhoods as they make plans to roll out video-by-telephone services, a coalition of consumer and civil rights groups yesterday called on the government to delay the approval process for such ventures until strict rules can be adopted.

"If the construction of the information superhighway is left to economic forces alone, troubling inequities emerge," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education. "We think it's very important that it be deployed on a nondiscriminatory basis."

In a petition to the Federal Communications Commission, the center and five other groups asked regulators to prevent companies, including Bell Atlantic Corp., from moving ahead with plans to offer "video dial tone" until public hearings can determine that those rollout plans are in the public interest. Mr. Chester's group was joined by the Consumer Federation of America, the Media Access Project, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Council of La Raza and the United Church of Christ.

"Video dial tone" allows video programming to be delivered to consumers' televisions over phone wires.

Based on only eight applications for the initial rollout of video dial tone services, the study appeared to be more of a shot across the bow of the industry rather than a serious indictment.

Among the companies singled out for criticism was Bell Atlantic, which drew censure for proposing to kick off commercial video-on-demand and cable service in Washington's affluent suburbs in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia before offering them in the District of Columbia and Prince George's County, both of which have more low-income and minority residents.

A spokesman for Bell Atlantic, Eric Rabe, said the group had based its findings on a handful of very early findings and had reached unjustified conclusions based on those.

He said Bell Atlantic is already planning to file applications to offer video dial tone in Washington and Prince George's and that service there could begin as early as late 1995. Last week, a company spokesman said Baltimore and nearby parts of Baltimore County could come on line in late 1995, too.

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