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Cities take open access fight to the FCC

Local government officials, armed with a recent federal court ruling, will meet with federal regulators this week to discuss open access for the cable industry.

Local government officials, armed with a recent federal court ruling, will meet with federal regulators this week to discuss open access for the cable industry.

Members of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, an organization of local government communications members, are set to meet with Federal Communications Commission staffers this Wednesday. The officials plan to discuss, among other things, an Oregon ruling that effectively gave local municipalities the right to force cable firms to open their networks to competing Internet service providers.

A number of municipalities around the country have dealt with the question of open access, yet not all have been able to come to a consensus on the issue. Los Angeles city officials, for example, issued a report last Friday that recommends the city not require open access at the present time.

The OpenNet Coalition, a group of ISPs pushing for open access, called on Los Angeles to support open access laws in a press conference today.

"L.A. should stand up for their citizens and provide open access," said Greg Simon, co-director of the OpenNet Coalition. "We see Los Angeles as a major metropolitan area and its decisions and actions will influence the rest of the nation."

The coalition contends that AT&T has put pressure on the city over the open access issue, and that city commissioners have recently resigned over the recommendations in the report. Only two of five members on the city's Information Technology Commission remain, preventing the group from voting on the report.

Many industry observers are lobbying for a national policy to help sort out the confusion over the open access issue. Debate at the local level is still hot, however, and municipalities like San Francisco and Miami-Dade County, Florida, are working to figure out the best solution to the problem.

"If the federal government doesn't act, I think that my commission will," Mario Goderich, director of the consumer protection division for Miami-Dade County in Florida.

ISPs led by online giant America Online want to pay cable companies to use their wires for high-speed Net access. But cable companies argue they paid for and built the networks, and should be allowed to use them without interference from competitors.

A recent court ruling upheld the right of Portland, Oregon--and therefore other cities--to impose an open access requirement on cable operators. AT&T appealed the ruling this week.

The FCC to date has not acted on the issue. FCC chairman Bill Kennard, in a strongly worded speech before cable industry executives last week at an industry convention in Chicago, argued that the best national policy is a hands-off approach.

"I don't know if that's going to be enough to appease a lot of local governments," Goderich said.

What's more, recent proposed cable purchases by AT&T and Charter Communications will open the cable franchise license transfer process in hundreds of cities across the country.

"I have three transfers before my commission in July and I can see that the open access issue will be brought up in the context of those transfers. And I think it will happen all over," Goderich said.

The local Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners considered the open access issue when AT&T bought Tele-Communications Incorporated, but decided against imposing a requirement.

Los Angeles weighs in
The city of Los Angeles, which will have representatives on hand at the FCC meetings, agreed with the FCC that the nascent market doesn't need new regulations in its open access report today.

The report recommends that the city not impose open access now, but that it should continue to monitor the broadband local access market over the next three years. The report also states that the city should require cable companies to "permit unrestricted access to all content on the Internet in addition to allowing subscribers a single 'click-through' directly to any unaffiliated Internet service provider."

Executives at cable modem service Excite@Home have long held they do allow for open access, as their users can easily view content from AOL and others with a single click.

The Los Angeles "Broadband Access Report," commissioned in January when the city was reviewing the AT&T-TCI merger, was prepared by the city's Information Technology Agency staff. The Los Angeles City Council has not yet voted on the recommendation.

The cable industry reacted positively to the report.

"The Los Angeles Information Technology Agency has clearly determined that government regulation of Internet access is unwarranted, and could reduce competitive choices for consumers," said AT&T general counsel Jim Cicconi.

Executives at Excite@Home also supported the report's findings.

"Excite@Home applauds the Information Technology Agency staff's decision to encourage the deployment of broadband networks through a 'hands-off' approach," said Milo Medin, Excite@Home's chief technology officer.

Metropolitan King County in Washington is also conducting a study on open access and is expected to report its findings later this year.

Separately, San Francisco is examining an open access requirement for its area. A county Board of Supervisors committee will meet Wednesday to vote on the already completed merger of AT&T and TCI. The county board's committee is expected to address open access.