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San Francisco considers open access rules

A committee decision in San Francisco over cable open access may move the municipality into the national spotlight on the controversial issue that has pitted local governments against federal regulators.

    A committee decision in San Francisco today over cable open access may move the municipality into the national spotlight on the controversial issue that has pitted local governments against federal regulators.

    A committee from the city's Board of Supervisors today declined to adopt a resolution recommending the city transfer cable franchise licenses from Tele-Communications Incorporated to AT&T following the firms' merger. Instead, the committee called for a closed-door meeting on open access next month.

    The move pushes the city closer to possibly imposing controversial open access rules--which seek to allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to pay cable operators to use their networks for high-speed Net access--on AT&T.

    San Francisco's decision comes as a federal appellate court weighs an open access case in Portland, Oregon.

    Cable operators stand to lose substantial revenue if they are forced to open their networks, while ISPs fear being locked out of the booming broadband game once dial-up Net access tapers off.

    San Francisco's Public Utilities Committee, which is led by board president Tom Ammiano, took no action on the open access resolution today. The committee did schedule the issue for a closed meeting of the full 11-member board on July 6.

    Advocates of open access, including America Online, GTE, and the local S.F. Bay Area Open Access Coalition--which submitted 5,000 signatures today on a petition calling for open access--hope the decision today is a sign that San Francisco will go forward with some type of open access rules.

    "It's definitely taking a step closer to putting it on the table for a full discussion," said Evette Davis, a spokeswoman for the S.F. Bay Area Open Access Coalition, which is lobbying the city. "We're pleased to see Ammiano trying to get the strongest open access language possible and we hope his colleagues will follow suit."

    Observers said Ammiano warned that he would vote against transferring the city's cable franchise to AT&T unless open access requirements were part of the deal.

    Ammiano's staff members did not immediately return calls for comment. Other board members appear to be warming to open access, sources said.

    The city also is scheduled to vote on a separate amendment July 6 which would put San Francisco on the record with the Federal Communications Commission as supporters of open access, according to Julia Friedlander, director of the city's department of telecommunications and information services.

    The FCC has not ruled definitively on the issue, although FCC chairman Bill Kennard has been outspoken in his view that the high-speed Net market is still in its formative phases, and thus does not warrant new regulations.

    San Francisco, if it decided to do so, would become only the second city to require open access. Portland, Oregon, is involved in a legal battle with AT&T over its decision to require equal access to cable networks. AT&T has appealed the ruling.

    "Portland stood up to AT&T and refused to let them have a monopoly. It looks like San Francisco is showing similar courage and we appreciate the efforts by city officials to protect their citizens," Greg Simon, co-director of the OpenNet Coalition, an ISP lobbying group, said in a statement.

    Open access advocates contend that without new laws cable operators and their affiliated Internet services will soon hold a monopoly over the high-speed Net access market. However, cable companies say they are bringing competition to the marketplace and that the proposed laws will stifle investments in network upgrades.