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Broadband cable access issue reaching Congress

Influential Democrat Ed Markey will next week introduce a measure aimed at prying open cable TV companies' networks to outside Internet service providers.

A congressional measure aimed at prying open cable TV companies' networks to outside Internet service providers will likely be introduced next week, breaking new ground in a budding movement to expand high-speed Net connections.

Sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), an instrumental figure in shaping the 1992 Cable and the 1996 Telecommunications acts, the measure would require cable companies to give Internet service providers such as America Online direct access to their cable networks. Today, most cable Internet customers must use an ISP affiliated with the cable company, such as the AT&T-controlled Excite@Home, while dial-up Net users can choose any ISP.

The measure will be introduced next week, with a goal of signing up at least 100 co-sponsors, the congressman said.

"It would be a mistake, from a public policy perspective, to have an open network, the telephone network, and a closed network, the cable network," Markey said in an interview with CNET today. "Both networks should be open."

Markey's efforts mark the latest in a string of high-profile measures focused on consumer high-speed Internet access this year. The bills have prompted an all-out lobbying campaign from companies like AT&T, AOL, and all of the big local telephone companies.

At the top of this legislative pig-pile has been the so-called cable open-access issue, which first surfaced shortly after AT&T announced it would buy Tele-Communications Incorporated last year.

AT&T requires its broadband cable Internet subscribers to use its affiliated Excite@Home service, just as most other cable companies require Internet customers to use their own affiliated ISPs.

Competing ISPs, such as America Online, MindSpring and GTE, have argued in court, in Congress, and in front of federal regulators that they should be given direct access to these cable networks to sell their own branded services, just as they can directly serve dial-up Internet customers over telephone lines.

The debate has stormed through Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, and at local governments across the country. Even television ads are being run to build public support.

Despite the intensifying debate, federal policymakers have yet to make a single official ruling on the issue. But a federal court recently determined that Portland, Oregon, could force AT&T to open its cable networks as a condition of approving its local cable franchise. That decision gave new life to similar open-access drives in other cities.

One bill, sponsored by Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) and Rick Boucher (D-Virginia), would force cable companies to open their networks but also reduce regulation on the large local telephone companies' broadband data businesses.

A competing measure, introduced last week by House Telecommunications subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan), would allow cable companies to keep their broadband networks closed to direct competition by outside ISPs but would allow the telephone companies substantial new leeway in controlling their own high-speed data services.

Markey said each of the other two bills would allow local telephone companies to move toward a more closed model, which he opposes. His own measure would take a different tack, instructing federal regulators to view cable Internet access as a telecommunications service, which would force companies to give outside ISPs access.

AT&T declined to comment on Markey's planned resolution but has consistently said that cable Internet access is a cable service--and therefore not subject to open-access requirements. The company has also argued that it is not technically practical to open its cable networks to an unlimited number of outside ISPs. The company is appealing the Portland decision.

Despite the growing interest on Capitol Hill, few Washington insiders seem to think that any significant legislation on this or other telecommunications issues will succeed this year.

Even Markey is pessimistic about the chances of his measure--or its rivals--passing before legislators return home this fall. "At the end of the day I don't think it's likely that any legislation will pass heading in either direction over the next year and a half," he said.