Portland Place, a residential street in Silver Spring, is a major battlefield in the fight to control how people connect to the digital world.
Residents are barraged by offers from at least six companies offering combinations of telephone, television and high-speed Internet services. It is one of the most contested areas in the country, where the battle between cable and phone companies has touched off a marketing frenzy to grab each others' customers for the biggest prize of all: high-paying customers signing up for the full package of services.
Many neighborhoods complain of a lack of options, but residents of some communities such as Silver Spring and Falls Church face a bewildering onslaught of marketing and price warfare.
"All those slick mailings," said Kevin Murphy, a resident of Portland Place and a mail carrier who every week delivers two or three brochure advertisements from those companies. "They're heavy."
"It's hand-to-hand combat," said James F. Mooney, chairman of RCN Corp., a cable service provider with 40,000 customers in the Washington area, including Silver Spring, Bethesda, Gaithersburg, Falls Church and Washington, where it employs door-to-door salesmen.
One of those salesmen is Ron Maier, one of RCN's top-selling foot soldiers, who goes out six nights a week to win customers -- ideally with the "triple play" bundle of cable, phone and Internet services.
"Some people say you shouldn't degrade the competition, but I try to get customers dissatisfied with Comcast," said Maier, a 16-year veteran of the cable business.
On a recent sticky 93-degree evening, Maier wiped sweat and swatted mosquitoes, but said conditions were not bad. "Wintertime is tough, when it gets dark at 5:30 or so, and people are too scared to open the door," he said. "I don't go out when it thunderstorms. That's the night I get on the phone."
In addition to Comcast Corp., Maier is up against Verizon Communications Inc., Covad Communications Inc., the Dish Network and DirecTV, and he must make quick work of 75 to 80 homes a night.
Maier quickly sizes up when people are not home, rolls up sheets detailing RCN's pricing -- $97 to $139 a month for the bundle of services -- and sandwiches them in the doors.
He braces for the occasional mishap, such as when a man answered the door in his underwear. He walks through yards to save time. He raps hard on doors with his fist because "lots of times the bells don't work." Another tactic: "One of the things I do, I open up the screen door, so if they open up the door I'm already in their face."
Sometimes, public relations campaigns cross over into corporate mudslinging. Comcast recently blamed its service interruptions in Montgomery County on Verizon network-construction projects cutting its cable lines. Cox has lodged similar complaints against Verizon with the Virginia State Corporation Commission.
The ad war escalates as cable and phone companies encroach on each other's business turf. Cable providers like Cox and RCN sell phone service to compete with Verizon.
Verizon, meanwhile, is digging up streets, stringing new fiber-optic cable and heavily marketing its Fios high-speed Internet network in Falls Church and Arlington, and Fairfax and Montgomery counties -- prompting Cox, Comcast, and Adelphia to increase their Internet speeds in those areas. Now Verizon has its sights on cable's main franchise and this month received approval from the Herndon Town Council to offer television service. The company applied in Howard and Fairfax counties for similar approval, which the cable companies are fighting.
Verizon recently shipped UPS second-day-delivery packages with brochures about Fios to the residents of Portland Place. It also plans to employ door-to-door solicitors to sell Fios later this month.
"I was intrigued by Verizon's approach," said Mary Ellen Futch, a computer consultant, who along with her husband, Mel, works from home and has Dish satellite television and Covad Communications high-speed Internet service. Neither the UPS delivery nor Maier's promotional offer moved Futch.
"It's a much different approach than we've used before," said John Baker, director of marketing for the mid-Atlantic region for Verizon, which has not announced when it plans to offer TV service.
Verizon sponsored a block party in Falls Church in June, giving away snacks and trials of the Fios service, and plans more such events, Baker said. It outfitted several Hummers with Fios advertising to drive around the area. "We certainly expect these tactics to ratchet up," he said.
"The war is going to be brutal," especially considering Verizon entering the television market, said Frank Dzubeck, president of Washington-based Communications Network Architects Inc., a consultancy.
Phone companies recently caught up with cable companies in the high-speed Internet race by dropping prices for digital subscriber line (DSL) services. Cable companies, in turn, started offering phone service.
The main objective is landing customers who buy not just one service, but pay as much as $150 a month or more for all the services, Dzubeck said. "The name of the game is the bundle."
Along Portland Place, the bundle is not necessarily an easy sell.
Marguerite Glass, a college professor, said she subscribed to cable, phone and Internet service from RCN (then known as Starpower) several years ago, but switched back after a hurricane blew out the power on her cable phone. "I split them up again," she said, declining Maier's package-deal offer.
Down the street, chef Joe Beck already subscribes to a Verizon package for home and cell phones. He was hoping to sign up for Fios, too, but canceled his order after a technician failed to show up.
Still, it is nice to have new competition in the neighborhood, many of the residents said. In addition to promotional deals, it shakes up all the vendors.
"I'll admit Comcast has a corner on the market. They can charge whatever they want to, and they seem to," said Ron Duane, who works for a government contractor. "I like it when a representative comes out because they can answer questions."
Ron Maier, armed with brochures promoting RCN products, talks to Silver Spring residents, hoping to sell a package of Internet, cable and telephone services.