Voters may sound off on high-speed Net plans

A handful of ballot initiative drives are about to put voters across the country in the unprecedented position of sounding off over the future of a high-speed Internet.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
5 min read
A handful of ballot initiative drives are about to put voters across the country in the unprecedented position of sounding off over the future of a high-speed Internet.

In Denver, a proposed ballot initiative would allow city voters to decide whether high-speed cable networks should be opened to use by all Internet service providers (ISPs).

This would be one of the first times that a controversial and complicated Internet issue was put on a ballot. But it likely won't be the last.

A ballot drive is underway High speed pipe dreams? in Massachusetts, where a group of activists hope to bring the open cable access issue to the legislature or the state's November 2000 ballot. Pro-open access groups in San Francisco are also considering a ballot campaign that could bring the issue to city voters this fall.

The moves will put voters in the somewhat awkward position of deciding a business issue worth hundreds of millions of dollars to AT&T, America Online, and other Internet companies. But in a sense, the campaigns also mark a new move into the mainstream for the Internet, joining it with industries from banking to gambling that have seen their futures tied to a public vote.

"It makes no sense at all to make voters decide technical questions," said Jim Shulz, executive director of San Francisco's Democracy Center, and author of a book about initiative campaigns in California. "[But] on the other hand, voters have every right to do so. For the most part voters make pretty savvy choices."

To the people
The drive for "open" or "forced" cable access has been led by ISPs like America Online and telephone companies who want to use the cable companies' networks to offer their own high-speed, or "broadband," Internet services. Today, most cable companies require their high-speed Net customers to use an affiliated ISP, such as Excite@Home or Road Runner, before they can access a third-party ISP.

The ISPs have raised the issue in front of federal regulators, local and state governments, the courts, and Congress. To date, officials in Portland, Oregon, and Broward County, Florida, have ruled that cable companies must open their networks to outside ISPs. AT&T has sued to overturn both decisions.

In the course of the debate, the issue has become increasingly political, with television advertisements and expensive lobbying campaigns taking on the trappings of a full-fledged political campaign.

But with the issue likely going to voters soon, it will enter the world of politics in earnest.

In Denver, a coalition led by ISPs and local phone firm US West has submitted a petition to the city that would force AT&T to share its networks with other ISPs. While not yet officially approved by the city's elections' board, the petition drive gathered nearly twice as many signatures as needed to reach the ballot, and will likely be accepted within the next few weeks.

The issue will share the November ballot with a renewal of AT&T's exclusive license to offer cable services in Denver. The two issues will almost certainly spur expensive campaigns on both sides.

"We will be supporting our own initiative, and will be working at the same time to defeat the OpenNet initiative if it qualifies," said Sarah Duisik, an AT&T spokeswoman.

If the Denver ballot initiative passes, it will have the same force of law as a city council action. Duisik said AT&T would likely sue to prevent it from going into force, just as in Portland or Broward County, if the measure is successful.

The Massachusetts ballot campaign is still in its early stages. Led by Boston venture capitalist Chris Grace, who says he is unaffiliated with America Online or any of the other ISP-led groups, the effort aims to put the issue of open access in front of the state legislature this fall, or else on in front of voters in November 2000.

Under Massachusetts law, if Grace is able to collect 57,000 signatures in suport of the initiative, state lawmakers are allowed to pass on or modify his proposal. But if he doesn't like what they've done, he can collect another 9,800 signatures, and take it to the ballot next year.

More than 170 communities have to approve AT&T's cable license transfer in Massachusetts, and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) has been one the leaders in Congress advocating open access to cable networks.

In San Francisco, open access proponents are still considering whether to ask voters to overturn last month's county Board of Supervisors' decision to delay a decision on open access. Some sources close to the issue have also said a statewide ballot drive in California is possible.

What's the issue?
The open access issue would be the first time a technical Internet issue--most of which are settled between companies or in Net standards bodies--has been settled by public vote.

But it wouldn't be the first time the high-tech community has weighed in on a controversial ballot issue. In 1996, Silicon Valley players raised close to $40 million to defeat a trial lawyer-sponsored initiative in California that would have made it easier to file class-action shareholder lawsuits in that state.

California in particular has seen a number of interest groups take policy issues to the people after failing to win the support of state lawmakers. The open access campaign, which has AT&T- or ISP-backed "consumer" coalitions on either side, has already begun to fall into the traditional mold, political observers say.

"Almost anytime that a major industry group sets out to do an initiative campaign, its first order of business is to make the effort look like just the opposite--a consumer campaign," said the Democracy Center's Shulz.

Nevertheless, the ISPs have consistently attracted politically valuable endorsements for their campaign, including the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America. These allies will be invaluable in a campaign in front of the public, campaign watchers say.

"Endorsements matter," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation, and a longtime election watcher. "When voters are faced with complex issues, they often look for shortcuts, such as following campaign contributions and endorsements."

But even these shortcuts probably won't help most voters--considering may have never even surfed the Net--figure out the technical and policy details surrounding the open access issue.

"The average voter won't have a clue about the technical details involved [nor will a lot of reporters]," Shulz said. "In cases like these, where an issue is both technical and doesn't carry much emotional wallop, voters decide based on the superficial arguments they hear most...and their sense of who they trust most on either side."