RCN has been competing with the cable industry long enough to know that there’s no such thing as a free ride when it comes to franchising and programming. The entry of big telco zealots into the video arena has done little to change that model.

Frankly, there’s as little reason for the likes of Verizon and AT&T to help overbuilders like RCN as there is for the big cable players like Comcast, Cox and Time Warner. Still, RCN, if positioned correctly, can ride the waves being created by the telcos.

"From our perspective, we look at trying to make sure that Verizon continues to utilize the regulators to help us be able to enter these new markets," said Richard Ramlall, senior vice president of strategic and external affairs at RCN.

At the same time, he said, RCN must constantly remind regulators that "companies like RCN that some people call overbuilders (guilty as charged, here) but we like to call competitive providers have been playing by the rules for many years. We want to make sure that any benefits getting through to Verizon are also accrued by the small competitive companies like us." Nobody’s likely to help It’s a slippery wire on which to walk.

"We’re the true competitors that have actually been out there … every day doing battle with the incumbent cable provider, which is Comcast, and also doing battle with the incumbent telephone provider, which is Verizon," said Ramlall.

Outside the regulatory environment, that battle is being fought on a relatively level field. The company with the most toys wins the subscribers. RCN, with services in Boston, New York, Eastern Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles has a chest full of playthings.

Ramlall said that RCN was "the original triple-play competitive provider," and last fall the Herndon, VA-based company pushed the envelope with a trial of quadruple-play services in Boston where it worked with wireless broadband company MobilePro. Results were "encouraging," Ramlall said, but "we are not yet certain that you have to have this quad play in order to succeed." Look for wireless That uncertainty will probably erode faster than the Jersey shoreline as the MSOs, with the help of Sprint Nextel, and certainly AT&T and Verizon start to flex their mobile muscles. Again, Ramlall pointed out, RCN is in no man’s land. Despite grandiose pronouncements from the cable-Sprint JV that the service would be open to other cable companies, "they’re not making that available to competitive providers like RCN and others," he said.

"Everyone is looking at this fixed-mobile convergence," he said. "Our customers want the ability of taking their wireless device to have not just voice but data and video content. That’s something we want to be able to do and is clearly something we are going to address in terms of our strategy and what we need to bring to our customers."

It is, for RCN, just part of doing business and blazing a trail. If Verizon or AT&T wants to use heavy equipment to widen the footpath RCN has macheted through the competitive jungle, all the better, Ramlall said, as long as they don’t bulldoze his company in the process.

"While it is true that they have massive resources at their disposal to help them, as long as we get a fair shake by regulators both at the federal level as well as the states … we hope that we’ll be able to continue competing and providing affordable services at reasonable costs to our customers," he said. About that content But that’s only part of it. RCN also needs the programming that makes those services attractive.

"We see a lot more vertical integration, a lot more buying out of what we call must-have content – things like sports programming, kids content and one-of-a-kind types of things from movie studios," he said. "If the FCC does not continue to have oversight and responsibility for looking at that, it could create a significant issue so that companies like us have a hard time providing it at affordable rates to our consumers." – Jim Barthold

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