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Activists push for vote on cable Net access

Supporters in Massachusetts submit thousands of signatures to put the issue of cable access for Internet service providers to a public vote.

Activists in Massachusetts submitted thousands of signatures to put the issue of cable access for Internet service providers to a public vote.

Supporters of the measure are seeking to secure a place on the November 2000 election ballot for a proposal that if passed would require cable operators to open their high-speed networks to ISPs across the state.

The debate surrounding "open access" is a contentious one, with ISPs such as America Online on one side of the fight and cable firms such as AT&T on the other. ISPs claim they need access to the vast cable networks to offer their own high-speed Net services. Cable firms, however, say this practice is technically difficult and would discourage investment in the networks themselves.

Interested parties continue to watch Portland, Ore., the place where AT&T sued local officials following a ruling on open access. Currently, a panel of federal judges is weighing the potentially precedent-setting appeals court case.

Open access proponents in Massachusetts need more than 57,000 signatures--in addition to approval from state lawmakers--to make it the first state in the nation to vote on the controversial Internet policy.

"They tell me they've submitted 70,000 signatures. I have no reason to doubt that," said Jack McCarthy, chief of staff for the elections division of the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth.

Massachusetts has been home to some of the most intense lobbying in the ongoing national battle over access to cable networks by unaffiliated ISPs.

A handful of communities in the state already have adopted open access requirements. The community of Weymouth, Mass., previously approved an open access provision, but later reversed the decision.

The proposed Massachusetts ballot measure still faces a series of votes in the state legislature before it would appear on the ballot. Even then opponents believe voters might not approve the measure.

"We're confident that if this makes it to the ballot that the voters will see it as an anti-consumer measure," said Maria Farrah John, a spokeswoman for Consumers & Internet Providers for Technology Competition, a cable industry-backed consortium opposed to cable access laws.

Similar ballot measure plans failed in Denver and San Francisco earlier this year.

However, Massachusetts open access supporters could still place their proposal on the ballot if state lawmakers do not vote in favor of it by submitting more than 9,500 additional signatures next summer, McCarthy said.