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Farmers sound off for broadband services

Washington state farmers want broadband services too, and together with a local Internet service provider, they are reaching out to other Net users in a very low-tech way.

Washington state farmers want broadband services too, and together with a local Internet service provider, they are reaching out to other Net users in a very low-tech way.

Internet On-Ramp, one of 14 ISPs owned by Internet Ventures (IVI), and the Washington State Farm Bureau are using roadside billboards in the Spokane, Washington, area to draw attention to the ISP's fight to lease access for high-speed Net services on local cable networks.

"Demand a choice," the billboards read. "Don't let TCI hold your Internet hostage!"

The black-and-yellow billboards are certain to get the attention of passing motorists, and the ISP hopes, some raised eyebrows.

The company also filed a formal complaint with the city of Spokane after the local AT&T cable television franchise--formerly Tele-Communications Incorporated--denied Internet Venture's application for "leased access."

IVI contends it should be allowed to pay for, or lease, capacity on cable systems under a clause in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The company argues that Internet services are similar to video programming, and therefore AT&T should have to carry IVI's broadband PerkiNet service. About 1,600 people subscribe to PerkiNet, a high-speed cable modem service targeted at smaller cities and "ex-urban" markets. Spokane, a city of 189,000, is the largest of IVI's 14 markets.

The issue differs only slightly from so-called open access--a push by ISPs to use their competitors' cable networks for high-speed Net access--the subject of many debates and hearings in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission. Federal regulators are currently working on how best to regulate cable companies and their extensive networks.

"We need to make sure the public is educated on the issue," said Paul Schneider, a spokesman for Internet Ventures.

TCI of Washington executives could not immediately be reached for comment.

The state farm bureau, an advocacy group for Washington farmers and ranchers, has concerns about the cost of high-speed Net access in rural areas.

"We want people to question what is going on," said Patrick Chestnut, director of member services for the state farm bureau. "The frustration we have is that it looks like Spokane is going to lock out ISPs from Internet access. ? This is just a test case. If TCI gets its way then it'll be that way all over the state."

The roadside billboards are only the latest in a series of attempts by high-tech firms to raise awareness for their causes by taking out advertisements on television and in public places.

Lewis Schiff, chief executive of invest-o-rama recently rented billboard space in the San Francisco Bay Area in an attempt to raise venture capital funds.

In January, groups opposed to the merger between SBC Communications and Ameritech paid for several television ads to raise consumer awareness about their cause.