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San Francisco poised for cable open access vote

Marking a key decision in the nationwide battle over cable access, local government officials will vote on whether ISPs should be allowed to use AT&T's cable network.

Marking a key decision in the nationwide battle over cable access, local government officials in San Francisco are set to vote today on whether Internet service providers should be allowed to use AT&T's cable network.

As the next municipality to consider "open access," San Francisco has been in the national spotlight for weeks. The lack of federal guidelines over cable open access has given local governments the lead in the debate, and ironically has forced AT&T to defend its national broadband interests on the local level.

A federal judge in June upheld the right of local officials in Portland, Oregon, to impose open access requirements on AT&T. Broward County, Florida, followed with a similar mandate affecting all cable operators in its area earlier this month. Those cases have paved the way for cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Miami to make their own decisions on the issue.

The broadband stakes are huge--AT&T alone has poured billions of dollars into its plans for a high-speed Internet. San Francisco's vote could either add momentum to the open access cause, or put the brakes on the issue.

"San Francisco has been such a leader in the Internet, and so a number of cities that would love to be as technology savvy as San Francisco will be watching this closely to take a leadership position from what we do," said Katie Roper, executive director of the Bay Area Open Access Coalition, a local ISP-backed group.

If San Francisco votes to impose what the cable industry has come to call "forced access," the decision is almost certain to be opposed in court. AT&T filed suit in the Portland case while Comcast sued Broward County officials last week.

And today, AT&T filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Miami to overturn the Florida ruling. The firm alleges that the Broward County ordinance violates the Cable Act, as well as the First Amendment.

The local fights have also been tempered by recent comments from the Federal Communications Commission. Although the commission has not yet formally ruled on open access, chairman William Kennard has made it clear he believes it is too early to consider regulating cable Net access. Underlining the FCC's resolve, it plans to file a brief in the Portland case, effectively supporting AT&T's side.

Open or forced
The issue pits cable operators like AT&T against third-party ISPs such as America Online and MindSpring Enterprises. With high-speed, or broadband, Internet connections expected to be a huge growth business with lucrative revenue opportunities, the cable industry and ISPs are aggressively lobbying federal and local regulators for favorable policies while the market is still in its infancy.

ISPs contend cable operators will hold a monopoly over broadband Net access with their affiliated high-speed Internet access services like Excite@Home if government regulators do not take action. Cable companies claim heavy-handed regulations will slow the deployment of new broadband technologies and create a disincentive for them to invest in costly but necessary network upgrades.

Both sides have targeted local officials with active lobbying campaigns in hope of winning favor for their cause. Front groups for ISPs and the cable industry have also engaged in ad battles on television and in major newspapers to curry local interest in the fight.

In cooperation with a local firm, the OpenNet Coalition, a national group of ISPs pushing the cable access issue, released surveys in San Francisco and three other municipalities showing consumers believe the current Internet service system designed by the cable industry is "unfair."

The cable industry also has done its share to raise the public's awareness of the issue.

Excite@Home, a leading cable modem service which is affiliated with AT&T, paid for newspaper ads two weeks ago when San Francisco officials held a closed hearing on the topic.

The company also staged a demonstration in front of San Francisco City Hall, featuring people dressed as kings, queens, and knights, imploring San Francisco officials not to be "a pawn in AOL's game."