FCC postpones votes on open access

The Federal Communications Commission punts its two most controversial agenda items: telecom carrier access to multitenant buildings and cable open access.

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WASHINGTON--The Federal Communications Commission at its monthly meeting today punted its two most controversial agenda items: telecom carrier access to multitenant buildings and cable open access.

In each instance, the delay was at the request of one of the FCC's commissioners. Chairman William Kennard made each commissioner promise the two items would be voted on within two weeks, adding that for the cable open access item in particular "it is very important that we get this item done."

On open access, the commission is considering launching an inquiry into what role, if any, the federal government has in forcing cable or any other high-speed Internet provider to open up networks. Similarly, the agency also is weighing to what extent the FCC should aid communications companies in gaining access to buildings where the landlord has exclusive contracts with a single provider. Wireless providers such as WinStar want access to building rooftops to install antennas, while other telecom providers want access to the inside wiring to provide residents phone and Internet services.

Commissioner Harold Furchgtgott-Roth requested a delay on inside wiring, and although he declined to cite a reason, part of the controversy surrounding the item is whether the FCC has the jurisdiction to order tenants to allow access to their buildings. Furchtgott-Roth has a long voting history at the commission of only recognizing a very limited regulatory authority for the agency in telecommunications.

FCC staff acknowledge that the item is not a pleasant one for the commission, as it's likely that whatever the commissioners decide, a wronged party will take the action to court.

Commissioner Gloria Tristani requested a delay on cable open access. "I requested that consideration of the notice of inquiry on open access be delayed until the FCC completes its review of the Time Warner-AOL merger," she said in a statement.

She told reporters the review of AOL-Time Warner by the FCC, which may include an open access requirement, shouldn't be preempted by the commission's notice of inquiry on open access. The two items "should be considered concurrently," she said, adding that won't happen now, even with the delay.

A full month's delay would have postponed the open access inquiry until Oct. 12, when the FCC plans to complete its review of the AOL-Time Warner merger.

"I strongly support" Tristani's action, Jeff Chester, executive director for the watchdog group Center for Media Education, said in a statement. "The FCC should be focused on the issues raised by AOL-Time Warner."

Even if the commission had launched its inquiry, open access proponents would have been unsatisfied. "We are disappointed that the FCC is issuing a call for further discussion rather than proposing concrete steps that will ensure consumer choice on cable broadband systems," openNET Coalition co-director Kristan Van Hook said.

Both items will be voted in circulation, meaning individual commissioners will make their votes known to Kennard informally rather than at a meeting. Kennard promised the open access inquiry will be released "the moment" he has collected the votes.