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ISP lobbying group aims for open access

A group of leading Internet service providers has formed a new Washington-based lobbying group, aimed to turn up the heat on regulators over cable open access.

A group of leading Internet service providers has formed a new Washington-based lobbying group, aimed to turn up the heat on regulators over cable open access.

Led by America Online, MCI WorldCom, and MindSpring Enterprises, many of the members of the new OpenNet Coalition have lobbied the Federal Communications Commission on this issue over the past few months.

But Internet service providers were dealt a blow last week when the FCC decided to postpone any decision on whether ISPs had the right to lease access on cable companies' pipes to offer their own advanced data services.

But AOL and other ISPs aren't ready to give up the fight.

"The Internet works because it is open," said Greg Simon, one of the new group's directors, in a statement today. "We cannot allow cable companies to change that basic fact by giving their own Internet service providers exclusive access to the cable broadband connection to consumers' homes."

AOL and other ISPs want consumers to buy a cable modem and be able to subscribe to any high-speed Net service over the cable wires that run to their home--whether they belong to Tele-Communications Incorporated, Time Warner, or any other cable company.

But cable companies--and AT&T, which will gain control of cable Net access company @Home as part of its merger with TCI--say that they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrading their cable systems. Forcing cable companies to open their networks to other ISPs would undermine their market position and deter future spending, they say.

The issue could be critical to the future survival of ISPs, since cable modems are the most common broadband access device used by consumers.

But though ISPs have made considerable noise on the issue in recent months, executives say the open access debate has little influence on their businesses today.

"It's not a critical issue in the near future," said Mike McQuary, president of MindSpring Enterprises. "We think plain old dial-up is going to be the access method of choice for the next few years."

Other high-speed options such as wireless and DSL, which uses existing phone lines, will provide Mindspring with good broadband alternatives. But if cable companies maintain their control of cable net access, the ISPs could be hurt down the road, he added.

"If it goes out a few more years, then it becomes more important," McQuary said. "We like to get out ahead of the issues, addressing them before they get to be real problems."

Stepping up the pressure
With its message recast in pro-competition, pro-consumer terms, the OpenNet coalition is poised to play the insider Washington game in a way still new to many Internet companies.

The group has hired Simon, a former chief staffer to Vice President Al Gore, and Rich Bond, a former Republican National Committee chairman, as co-directors. The bipartisan slant--a tactic successfully used by the Silicon Valley-based Technology Network--will allow the group access to policymakers on both sides of the aisle.

The coalition will continue to press the FCC to open official action on the access issue. But it also plans to work with Congress in an effort to find a legislative route toward its goals, a spokeswoman said.

Already several legislators, including Senator John McCain and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), have weighed in at the FCC supporting the coalition's position.

Consumer groups and some municipal policymakers have also addressed arguments for open access in cable networks. Officials in Portland, Oregon, have been most vocal over open access, recently denying a cable transfer from TCI to AT&T when the companies refused to abide by the city's open access rules. The city has appealed directly to the FCC to help support their position on the matter.

The OpenNet coalition is made up of America Online, MCI WorldCom, US West, MindSpring Enterprises, Prodigy, Netscape, Cable and Wireless USA, the Washington Association of Internet Service Providers, CyberRamp Internet Services, Bertelsmann Internet Services, ConnectNet, and the Texas Internet Service Providers Association.