Access Has Mass. Appeal

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As the forced-access locomotive continues to gain steam,MediaOne Group Inc. said last week that it would challenge the town of Weymouth, Mass.,which added an access requirement to its franchise transfer from MediaOne to AT&TBroadband & Internet Services.

In response to heavy lobbying by representatives fromAmerica Online Inc. and GTE Corp., the town's board of selectmen voted 4-0 to support openaccess.

"We're extremely disappointed that Weymouth hasignored the recommendation of the special magistrate to the Massachusetts Department ofTelecommunications and Energy and the Federal Communications Commission with regard to theissue of forced access," said Bartlett Leber, vice president and counsel forMediaOne. "Weymouth's anti-consumer decision is shortsighted and contrary to stateand federal law."

The special magistrate was appointed to advise cities onthe transfer in order to save the operators from duplicative hearings throughout thestate. The report of magistrate Charles Beard stated that cities should consider only thetechnical, financial and managerial abilities of a new operator, and not address openaccess. AT&T Broadband has met the three conditions, according to the report.

But cities can seek a waiver from DTE oversight to addresslocal issues. One city, North Andover, sought a waiver in order to address open access,but the request was denied.

National Cable Television Association CEO Robert Sachsnoted the conflict between Weymouth's desires and the state report and predicted thatMediaOne's appeal would be granted.

"The attempts by a few communities to regulate thecable Internet-access business should not obscure the fact that hundreds of cities andtowns across the country have recently approved cable-franchise transfers withoutdemanding unlawful forced-access conditions," he said in a prepared statement.

Also in Massachusetts, the issue was on hold pending ameeting last Friday between AT&T Broadband and Cambridge city manager Robert W. Healy,who has sole authority over a pending transfer of the city's MediaOne franchise.

Healy has announced that he won't approve a transfer unlessAT&T Broadband unbundles the high-speed network MediaOne currently uses to deliverInternet access to some 5,000 area residents.

"He's researched this issue, and he feels that it'sbest for the city and the citizens," Cambridge public-information officer Ini Tomeusaid.

In another hot spot, St. Louis, Steve Weber, AT&TCorp.'s state director of government affairs, said board president Francis Slay is pushinghis nondiscriminatory-access ordinance despite signs that some aldermen might beinterested in a compromise.

AT&T Broadband has proposed a deal that would assurethe city's right to revisit the access issue at a later date, while guaranteeing thatconsumers will be able to access the ISP of their choice.

The MSO also said it will deploy high-speed Internet accesscitywide, compared with Southwestern Bell's limited digital-subscriber-line rollout, andit promised at least one Internet connection for all schools.

"But [Slay] doesn't seem to be interested," Webersaid, "and the vote count is somewhat discouraging."

Industry observers consider the renewal process the idealtime to push for open access. Under the 1934 Communications Act, the city could declareopen access as critical to its telecommunications needs and threaten to deny the renewalif the operator balks.

Opponents, however, said it will take two years to upgradethe St. Louis system, which would coincide with the expiration of AT&T's exclusivecontent agreement with Excite@Home Corp. Company officials insisted that once thatcontract has lapsed, AT&T will be poised to carry multiple providers on its network.

Slay, who recently said 15 out of 29 votes would be foundto pass the ordinance, was unavailable for comment.

Sources said some alderman may be having second thoughts.

During a recent meeting, alderwoman Sharon Tyus questionedthe timing of the measure, referring to a recent FCC order assuring that the SBCCommunications Inc.-owned local phone operation won't have to unbundle its local DSLservice.

Others questioned the fairness of the measure, as well as57 lines worth of changes that the board had not been able to review.

If the ordinance is enacted, Weber said, it will bevirtually impossible to proceed with an upgrade of the St. Louis system or theintroduction of Internet access. A lawsuit will almost certainly follow.

"It seems to me like it's unavoidable," he added.

In Cambridge -- where the city must act on its transferrequest by Nov. 11 -- MediaOne is caught between a rock and a hard place. It can'twithhold Internet access because the service is already offered in that market.

While state regulators in Massachusetts have moved awayfrom open access, Pennsylvania is examining it.

The Consumer Affairs Committee of the Pennsylvania Housecollected testimony recently on House Bill 1516. The measure, introduced by Rep. RonaldRaymond (R-Delaware), would require cable operators to sell access to competitors at termscomparable with those of cable affiliates.

Proponents include large local Internet-service providersthat said they have asked to buy space from AT&T Broadband, but they have been denied.

Cable operators hope that the situation in Pennsylvaniawill work in their favor to kill the bill.

One of the ISPs' targets, Comcast Corp., is a localcompany. Further, several small operators -- such as Shen Heights TV Association inShenandoah and Blue Ridge Cable TV -- have made investments in high-speed data to bringbig-city services to rural Pennsylvania.

Operators believe the latter factor contributed to thedecision by the bill's co-author, Rep. Ron Wilt (R-Greenville), to remove his name fromthe proposal.

David Breidenger, regional vice president, Northeast forComcast, said he thought the hearing went well for operators. The next step will either beanother public hearing or a vote by the committee, but no time certain has been set foreither. Sources said the committee chair "is in no hurry" to move on the issue.

"Clearly, [the] OpenNet [Coalition], the regional Belloperating companies and GTE have all targeted our state ... We'll continue to spreadinvestment, deploy digital and provide choice to customers," he said.

OpenNet continues to keep up public pressure in selectedmarkets. For instance, a telemarketing campaign in Richmond, Va., appears to have been afactor in the last-minute introduction by the mayor of a motion to include open access infranchise transfers there.

The city is served by Comcast and MediaOne, but afteracquisitions and system swaps, AT&T Broadband will be the dominant operator.

Richmond cable administrator Michele Quander Collins saidthe City Council was ready to mull a resolution that would have required AT&TBroadband to provide access to competitors only if it was granted elsewhere. But at thework session Oct. 25, Mayor Timothy Kaine proffered a substitute motion requiring access.

ISP competitors have funded pro-access radio spots and atelemarketing campaign, and Kaine told local reporters one of the call recipients was hiswife.

Now, Richmond has scheduled a discussion on open accessNov. 4 and delayed the transfer vote until Nov. 8.

Michigan communities have also been lobbied to take up theissue. Canton and Plymouth Township will hold hearings on the topic this week.

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