Cox's Robbins Ruffles Feathers



LAS VEGAS -- Telecom ’05 -- Cox Communications Inc. (NYSE: COX) CEO Jim Robbins is retiring in two months, and this week he's been "having a little fun" at the expense of his archrivals, the big phone companies. During his acerbic keynote here Tuesday, Robbins did his best to paint the phone companies as way behind in the race to provide bundled consumer services. (See Cable Braces for Services Rush.)

The 63 year-old Robbins walked to the podium as his intro music, "Let's Get It Started" by the Black-Eyed Peas, blared, looking comically out of place. But then he took a breath, looked out to the crowd of telecom industry people, and started jabbing.

“I think it’s funny that SBC is now talking in those commercials about doing something that Cox has been doing for years,” Robbins said. He had hit the stage just after SBC VP Lea Ann Champion finished her IPTV pep talk, which ended with some SBC TV commercials on the large video screens. (See SBC Stretches Lightspeed Timeline .) Champion was filling in for SBC CEO Ed Whitacre, who was one of the Telecom show’s many no-shows. (See Cox to Get Clipped?.)

“Cox and SBC almost got together some years ago, but Mr. Whitacre called it off at the last minute,” Robbins said. “In a lot of ways it’s my loss. If I had been lucky enough to have been acquired by SBC, then the last 10 years I wouldn't have had to work so hard. I know what he did for [AT&T CEO] Dave Dorman, and I wish I could have had some of that myself.”

Robbins's slide presentation pointed out that Cox and other cable companies are much farther along than the telcos in offering the voice, video, and data bundle.

Perhaps the biggest hit among the telco suits here was Robbins's slide depicting a Virginia resident’s backyard completely ripped up by a Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) FiOS crew. (See Tracking Verizon's FTTP Progress.)

“Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery. I guess we should be honored that the Bells are jumping on the bundling bandwagon, scrambling to add video to their product lineup,” Robbins said. "We know you’ve been trying to do that for years... I’m sure you’ll get it right eventually. I realize that where video used to be an experiment for the Bells, it’s now critical to staying alive in the business.”

Verizon spokesman Mark Marchand shot back at Robbins after the speech. “He probably could have saved himself the trouble of making his shrill, unfounded comments about the telecom industry by just saying ‘I don’t want competition,’ ” Marchand told Light Reading on Thursday.

“The entire speech, I sat there and listened as he talked about how they know customer care better than anyone else and then showing some ridiculous picture of an alleged Verizon fiber installation in Virginia,” Marchand says. “They are going to do everything in their power to stop us from offering video service.”

But Robbins would accuse the telcos of having it too easy in some aspects of the video services war. In fact, he cried foul at the phone company efforts to bring about state-level video franchises. (See Panel: Video Changes the Telecom Act.)

He keyed in on Texas, where the telcos have been successful at doing just that. (See Telcos Close In on TX Video Win.) “Recently, we’ve also seen Texas pass a blatantly discriminatory piece of legislation that guts much of the local franchising process for video providers -- except, if you’re a cable company, you’re stuck with the old rules and regulatory burdens,” Robbins groused.

“So, here’s my proposition. Let’s go head to head. We’ll all benefit, but don’t try to tilt the playing field through the regulatory process.

"Instead, let’s compete in our bare-nakeds, without regulators babysitting us, and let consumers choose the winners,” he added, causing some to recoil at the mental imagery.

Despite beating up on the phone companies, Robbins said the lines of demarcation between telephone companies and cable companies are disappearing with the differences in ther product offerings.

“I ask you, just 10 years ago, would you -- the United States Telephone Association -- ever have imagined inviting the cable guy to your show?” The audience then sat in quiet consideration of that question -- that and the question of why Robbins was invited this year.

“I wish him the best of luck in his retirement,” Verizon's Marchand said.

A video of Robbins’s keynote can be found here.

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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