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Cable loses again in Net access battle

Florida's Broward County votes by a 4-3 margin to require local cable operators, led by MediaOne, to open their networks to outside ISPs.

Cable companies lost another skirmish in the battle to limit access to their high-speed networks today, as a local government in Florida voted to make the high-speed lines available to Internet service providers.

County commissioners in Florida's Broward County voted by a 4-3 margin to require local cable operators, led by MediaOne, to open their networks to outside ISPs such as America Online. The vote marks the second time a local government has taken aim at the broadband ambitions of AT&T and other cable companies.

So-called open access proponents are hopeful the Florida vote indicates a groundswell of support for their cause. Several other cities have examined the issue in light of AT&T's recent merger with Tele-Communications Incorporated. AT&T's proposed merger with MediaOne opens the door for increased local government scrutiny as officials weigh whether to approve that deal.

With little warning, the growing debate has suddenly drawn influential lobbyists from AT&T, AOL, GTE and other cable operators and local phone companies to Congress and local government chambers around the country. The issue has garnered tremendous interest due to the fact that it could shape the future of high-speed broadband Internet connections.

The Broward County vote comes on the heels of a decision in Portland, Oregon---which was subsequently upheld by a federal judge---requiring AT&T to allow unaffiliated ISPs to directly access its network there.

It is uncertain how quickly independent ISPs might be able to access MediaOne's wires as a result of the Florida ordinance, or how much influence the vote could have on other cities. Unlike the situation in Portland, where AT&T's affiliated cable modem service Excite@Home is not yet available, MediaOne already offers cable modem service via its Road Runner partnership in Broward County.

MediaOne spokesman Dave Wood blasted the vote, saying "competition is not being allowed to run its course here." Third-party ISP access to cable wires should be decided via negotiations between companies, not regulation, Wood said.

"Unfortunately, the losers in this vote are consumers in Broward County who may not enjoy more choices in high-speed Internet access and lower prices for local telephone service," Florida Cable Telecommunications Association President Steven Wilkerson said in a statement.

"GTE and AOL conducted an aggressive lobbying campaign and their motives are clear--in order to protect their monopolies, they are seeking to place road blocks in the way of consumer choice and competition," Wilkerson's statement said.

"Today's decision is clearly wrong on the law and also bad policy. It will have the unfortunate effect of discouraging investment in technology that would bring a choice of local telephone providers and high speed Internet access services to the citizens of broward county," Ken McNeely, AT&T's vice president for legal and governmental affairs for that region, said in a statement.

"As FCC chairman Kennard recently stated, the information superhighway will not work if 30,000 different localities each establish their own rules for Internet access."

"I'm not sure what the next step is. But whatever it is we'll take it," added AT&T spokesman Burke Stinson.

Road Runner executives could not immediately be reached for comment.

Open access supporters cheered the Florida decision as a step in the right direction.

"This forward-thinking decision increases consumer choice and access to the Internet," William Barr, GTE's general counsel, said in a statement. "We congratulate the Broward County Commissioners for standing up for their constituents and rejecting the cable industry's massive lobbying, advertising blitz, and bullying tactics."

The OpenNet Coalition, a group of ISPs seeking access to cable networks, also applauded what it called a "historic vote." The group will hold a conference call tomorrow, and is expected to announce its ISP membership has grown substantially, according to sources.

In San Francisco, where county supervisors are expected to vote on the issue July 26, open access supporters hope the Florida vote will influence local officials.

"We certainly hope the San Francisco Board of Supervisors takes a look at two cities now that support open access," said Katie Roper, executive director of the Bay Area Open Access Coalition. "We're just hoping that S.F. sees the momentum and that this is the direction that local governments are going."