Case alleging phone 'redlining' is weak


May 25, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

When a coalition of consumer and civil rights groups accused the regional Bell companies of "economic redlining" Monday, it was a sensational enough charge to land on Page 1 of the New York Times. But behind the rhetoric is a very weak case.

Seizing on four of the regional Bell companies' initial permit filings with the Federal Communications Commission, the coalition jumped to the conclusion that the telephone companies were systematically bypassing poor and minority communities in their plans to rebuild their networks to provide interactive video services. Representatives of the Center for Media Education, the Consumer Federation of America and the Media Access Project were on hand to pronounce the entire industry guilty of discrimination.

"At each phase of video dialtone deployment, providers should be required to make that service available to a proportionate number of lower-income and minority customers," they concluded. To see that they do so, the group urged the FCC to require public hearings in which consumers and local officials can weigh in with their views of how the phone companies should build their networks.

But upon examination, the evidence of redlining seems thin. Let's take the case of Bell Atlantic.

The coalition criticizes the company for proposing to launch its video service in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia first, insinuating that it did so in order to avoid the large minority populations in Prince George's County and the District of Columbia.

What they ignore is that Bell Atlantic faces the imminent threat of phone competition in Montgomery County from Southwestern Bell, which also owns a cable company in Arlington, Va. This is a compelling business reason for putting those areas first.

And if the demographics are favorable for profits, so what? Profit shouldn't be the only factor in building an information infrastructure, but it seems unreasonable to exclude it entirely. What matters is not that lower-income areas go in the first wave but that they aren't pushed to the end of the line.

Based on Bell Atlantic's statements last week, that's not in its plans. It has announced it plans to move quickly to roll out services in Washington, Prince George's and Baltimore City -- hoping to offer service in those heavily minority areas by late 1995.

If the company's plan is to discriminate on the basis of income, it would wire Anne Arundel County ahead of Baltimore. According to Bell Atlantic-Maryland President Frederick D'Alessio, it won't.

The coalition's solution could have the perverse effect of delaying the delivery of interactive video service to lower-income areas. Left to itself, Bell Atlantic might bring Towson on line in late 1995 and Baltimore in early 1996. With the coalition's proposed battery of hearings, Baltimore might go first -- sometime in 2000. Who wins then except the cable companies?

Neither Bell Atlantic nor any other telephone companies can be trusted blindly. There is a need for watchdog organizations to see that they live up to their responsibilities to the entire community.

But in trotting out the racially loaded term "redlining" on the basis of skimpy evidence, the watchdog was acting like a rabid pit bull. What's been left in shreds is its members' credibility.

You can't build a superhighway, even a metaphorical one, without stirring up some mud, but is it really necessary to fling it?

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