Talkin 'bout a revolution

RCN, the up-and-coming fiber optic network, tries -- a little too hard -- to get us to think of it as a telecom revolutionary.

Published October 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

After several years of merger mania -- including this week's $129 billion MCI Worldcom-Sprint deal -- we're looking at some pretty huge telcos. But up-and-coming fiber-optic network RCN is trying to buck the trend -- at least with its latest marketing campaign. It's portraying itself as the anti-monopoly alternative, offering you a chance to thwart the telecom giants that control your bills. The trouble is, RCN's new advertising insert goes to such extremes to make its point that it can't help but backfire.

RCN is currently laying fiber-optic cable across the country, putting together the infrastructure for a network offering Internet, cable and phone access. The company has already launched a cable network between Boston and Washington; currently, it's working on the San Francisco and San Diego markets.

It's a daunting task to strip consumers away from the monolithic companies dominating the telecom
industry. So, in an ongoing advertising campaign
that recently reached the San Francisco Bay Area, RCN is appealing to the rebellious sides of the local post-hippie techies by pitching itself as a new revolution. Witness the insert that came in the local Sunday paper -- a monstrous folded poster, featuring images of revolutionary German mobs tearing down the Berlin Wall in defiance of their communist rulers.

"The greatest moments in history are made when people demand treatment that is fair and just. Sooner or later, all tyrannies crumble," the insert shouts in capital letters, embossed in appropriately revolutionary red and black: "Your telecom giants are next. Introducing RCN phone, cable and Internet."

Never mind that RCN is hardly an upstart revolutionary. It may be smaller than the telecom giants, but with only a few markets it already boasts 600,000 customers, and on Monday the company picked up a $1.65 billion investment from Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures. To compare a fiber-optic network with a billion-dollar pocketbook to the German revolutionaries is ludicrous, not to mention insulting. It's unlikely that those who helped bash down the wall in 1989 would want their images being used to hawk American telco services.

Not only that, but RCN's insert is offering to send a little chunk of the Berlin Wall -- "a piece of history" -- to those who fill out an attached survey. The Berlin Wall is already an endangered monument, bulldozed and so worked-over by scavengers with rock hammers that hardly anything has been left standing.

RCN would be better off leaving historical monuments where they stand -- taking the money used to ship bits of concrete across the world and using it instead to build the best telecommunications network anywhere, and offering access to it at the lowest possible rates. That, more than false revolution, would do consumers a world of good.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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Berlin Wall