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&T
Broadband & Internet Services.
In response to heavy lobbying by representatives from
America Online Inc. and GTE Corp., the town's board of selectmen voted 4-0 to support open
"We're extremely disappointed that Weymouth has
ignored the recommendation of the special magistrate to the Massachusetts Department of
Telecommunications and Energy and the Federal Communications Commission with regard to the
issue of forced access," said Bartlett Leber, vice president and counsel for
MediaOne. "Weymouth's anti-consumer decision is shortsighted and contrary to state
and federal law."
The special magistrate was appointed to advise cities on
the transfer in order to save the operators from duplicative hearings throughout the
state. The report of magistrate Charles Beard stated that cities should consider only the
technical, financial and managerial abilities of a new operator, and not address open
access. AT&T Broadband has met the three conditions, according to the report.
But cities can seek a waiver from DTE oversight to address
local 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 Sachs
noted the conflict between Weymouth's desires and the state report and predicted that
MediaOne's appeal would be granted.
"The attempts by a few communities to regulate the
cable Internet-access business should not obscure the fact that hundreds of cities and
towns across the country have recently approved cable-franchise transfers without
demanding unlawful forced-access conditions," he said in a prepared statement.
Also in Massachusetts, the issue was on hold pending a
meeting 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 unless
AT&T Broadband unbundles the high-speed network MediaOne currently uses to deliver
Internet access to some 5,000 area residents.
"He's researched this issue, and he feels that it's
best for the city and the citizens," Cambridge public-information officer Ini Tomeu
In another hot spot, St. Louis, Steve Weber, AT&T
Corp.'s state director of government affairs, said board president Francis Slay is pushing
his nondiscriminatory-access ordinance despite signs that some aldermen might be
interested in a compromise.
AT&T Broadband has proposed a deal that would assure
the city's right to revisit the access issue at a later date, while guaranteeing that
consumers will be able to access the ISP of their choice.
The MSO also said it will deploy high-speed Internet access
citywide, compared with Southwestern Bell's limited digital-subscriber-line rollout, and
it promised at least one Internet connection for all schools.
"But [Slay] doesn't seem to be interested," Weber
said, "and the vote count is somewhat discouraging."
Industry observers consider the renewal process the ideal
time to push for open access. Under the 1934 Communications Act, the city could declare
open access as critical to its telecommunications needs and threaten to deny the renewal
if the operator balks.
Opponents, however, said it will take two years to upgrade
the St. Louis system, which would coincide with the expiration of AT&T's exclusive
content agreement with Excite@Home Corp. Company officials insisted that once that
contract 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 found
to pass the ordinance, was unavailable for comment.
Sources said some alderman may be having second thoughts.
During a recent meeting, alderwoman Sharon Tyus questioned
the timing of the measure, referring to a recent FCC order assuring that the SBC
Communications Inc.-owned local phone operation won't have to unbundle its local DSL
Others questioned the fairness of the measure, as well as
57 lines worth of changes that the board had not been able to review.
If the ordinance is enacted, Weber said, it will be
virtually impossible to proceed with an upgrade of the St. Louis system or the
introduction 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 transfer
request by Nov. 11 -- MediaOne is caught between a rock and a hard place. It can't
withhold Internet access because the service is already offered in that market.
While state regulators in Massachusetts have moved away
from open access, Pennsylvania is examining it.
The Consumer Affairs Committee of the Pennsylvania House
collected testimony recently on House Bill 1516. The measure, introduced by Rep. Ronald
Raymond (R-Delaware), would require cable operators to sell access to competitors at terms
comparable with those of cable affiliates.
Proponents include large local Internet-service providers
that said they have asked to buy space from AT&T Broadband, but they have been denied.
Cable operators hope that the situation in Pennsylvania
will work in their favor to kill the bill.
One of the ISPs' targets, Comcast Corp., is a local
company. Further, several small operators -- such as Shen Heights TV Association in
Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Cable TV -- have made investments in high-speed data to bring
big-city services to rural Pennsylvania.
Operators believe the latter factor contributed to the
decision by the bill's co-author, Rep. Ron Wilt (R-Greenville), to remove his name from
David Breidenger, regional vice president, Northeast for
Comcast, said he thought the hearing went well for operators. The next step will either be
another public hearing or a vote by the committee, but no time certain has been set for
either. Sources said the committee chair "is in no hurry" to move on the issue.
"Clearly, [the] OpenNet [Coalition], the regional Bell
operating companies and GTE have all targeted our state ... We'll continue to spread
investment, deploy digital and provide choice to customers," he said.
OpenNet continues to keep up public pressure in selected
markets. For instance, a telemarketing campaign in Richmond, Va., appears to have been a
factor in the last-minute introduction by the mayor of a motion to include open access in
franchise transfers there.
The city is served by Comcast and MediaOne, but after
acquisitions and system swaps, AT&T Broadband will be the dominant operator.
Richmond cable administrator Michele Quander Collins said
the City Council was ready to mull a resolution that would have required AT&T
Broadband to provide access to competitors only if it was granted elsewhere. But at the
work session Oct. 25, Mayor Timothy Kaine proffered a substitute motion requiring access.
ISP competitors have funded pro-access radio spots and a
telemarketing campaign, and Kaine told local reporters one of the call recipients was his
Now, Richmond has scheduled a discussion on open access
Nov. 4 and delayed the transfer vote until Nov. 8.
Michigan communities have also been lobbied to take up the
issue. Canton and Plymouth Township will hold hearings on the topic this week.