Led by a group of trade associations, Net access firms have kicked off an effort to compile data on what they say is widespread anticompetitive behavior by the Baby Bell companies. They plan to eventually submit an entire body of complaints to federal regulators in a push to get more protection from such business practices.
The campaign has been prompted by what many ISPs consider difficulty gaining access to the local phone companies' high-speed Internet lines, despite federal rules that require the phone companies to wholesale their services. It is the first time ISPs have teamed up across the board against the Baby Bells.
The Bell companies, for their part, reject the notion that they are discriminating against outside ISPs.
But "there is no Bell that is exempt from criticism in this area," said Barbara Dooley, director of the United States Internet Service Provider Alliance, and one of the leaders of the drive. "There has been a pattern of abuses across the country."
As consumers push for more high-speed Internet connections and Net firms gear their strategies to accommodate a broadband Net, independent ISPs can't afford to be left out of the high-speed race. Because they can't yet offer broadband Net access over cable networks, they are largely forced to rely on the telephone companies' digital subscriber line (DSL) services.
Ironically, the ISPs complaints come as local companies, like GTE, are criticizing cable companies for keeping their high-speed cable networks closed to outsiders.
The group of ISPs doesn't plan to file a formal complaint with federal regulators, a process that could take years and cost thousands of dollars--an impossibility for small local service providers, Dooley noted.
Instead, the ISPs are collecting information from individual service providers, hoping to establish a pattern of behavior from the Bells that will serve as a wake-up call for FCC officials. The regulatory agency is creating a new enforcement division next month, and the ISP groups hope their drive will make the division pay more attention to the plight of small businesses.
"We don't believe that a formal complaint will do very much," Dooley said. "We do not believe they know what is going on in the field."
For their part, FCC officials have been sympathetic, and are encouraging the providers in the drive to gather as much information as possible.
"The problem is that everything has come to us in the form of general statements and allegations," Robert Cannon said, an attorney for the FCC who deals with ISP issues. Yet the commission needs hard data before it can act, he added.
Complaints about the Bells' relationships with competitors aren't new--competing telephone companies and ISPs have long individually hounded the big local telephone companies for being slow to fill orders or inconsistent with network upgrades.
Independent service providers often aren't notified that their customers' lines are being upgraded, while Bell-owned competing ISPs often have easy access to this information, Dooley said.
Some ISPs say they have had been "slammed," or had their high-speed Internet service switched without authorization. Other ISPs say they have seen their service go down and stay down for days--a problem that, to be fair, also has plagued the Bells' own Net services.
"No ISP is going to be happy 100 percent of the time," said John Britain, a spokesman for Pacific Bell, SBC Communications' California division.
"But we absolutely value our wholesale relationships. Part of our strategy for reaching our DSL goals is to use those ISPs," he added.
Pacific Bell has 85 ISPs that resell its high-speed service, and plans to step up its efforts to give service providers wholesale dial-up infrastructure services, Britain noted.
The company doesn't even give its own ISP early notification when it plans to upgrade phone lines for DSL, he added.