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ISP group pushes for open access

A consortium of Internet service providers sends a joint letter to the FCC asking the regulatory body to open cable television networks to competition.

A consortium of Internet service providers sent a joint letter to the Federal Communications Commission today asking the regulatory body to open cable television networks to competition.

The group, composed of several leading ISPs and telecommunications companies, is calling on the FCC to require "open access" to cable systems. If companies were allowed open access, firms like ISPs would pay cable operators to use their fiber optic and coaxial cable networks to deliver advanced digital services to businesses and consumers.

"The government should not allow cable operators to reverse the present policy of consumer choice by limiting access to the 'last mile' broadband networks," the group wrote. "If cable operators control their broadband networks in a way that erodes the fundamental openness of the Internet, consumers will have fewer choices in products, services, features, and price."

The group pushing for open access includes: America Online, MCI WorldCom, MindSpring Enterprises, Prodigy, Qwest Communications International, Rocky Mountain Internet, US West, the ISP trade associations of Oregon and Washington, and several smaller service providers and educational organizations.

The group represents one of the largest coalitions yet that is pushing for cable competition. However, their complaints are not new.

Many of the companies have been involved since the $48 billion merger of AT&T and Tele-Communications Incorporated was announced last year.

Several ISPs, including AOL, issued public comments opposing the merger on anti-competitive grounds.

Some FCC commissioners have expressed reluctance to rule on the so-called open access issue in the context of their regulatory review of the AT&T-TCI deal, expected to close in the first quarter of 1999. But sources at the FCC said it is likely the regulatory body will examine the access issue at a later date, when prompted to by a state court or Congress.

Recent developments, however, could be one step closer to forcing the FCC's hand.

AT&T and TCI filed suit yesterday in federal court against Portland, Oregon, after the city denied the transfer of a cable license from TCI to AT&T over the question of open access. The companies are asking the federal judge to rule that the city did not have the authority to impose open access requirements on the two companies as part of their multibillion-dollar merger.

Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, tried to broker a compromise between AT&T and Portland city officials last week. Although staff members declined to discuss Wyden's plans, the lawmaker could introduce legislation affecting the cable industry, or direct the FCC to rule on open access.

AT&T and TCI oppose the proposed requirements, arguing it would be unfair for the companies to invest in expensive cable networks while allowing competitors to use them for just a small fee. The companies also say local jurisdictions don't have the authority to make open access rulings.

In the meantime, ISPs will continue to push for their cause.

"Open access to broadband platforms will not impede investment--indeed, it will encourage investment, not only from companies building those platforms but from companies purchasing communications capacity to offer services over these platforms," the group wrote.