Atlanta Gets Into the Act

Author:
Publish date:
Updated on

Atlanta -- Georgia's capital will be the next
jurisdiction to look at the open-access issue when it reviews AT&T Corp.'s bid
for a transfer of MediaOne Group Inc.'s local franchise.

Atlanta Mayor William Campbell said he will look "very
closely" at the access question before sending 170,000 MediaOne subscribers to
AT&T Broadband & Internet Services.

Campbell made his comments following a speech last week at
the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors Conference here,
during which he urged NATOA members to fight for consumer access to new technologies.

Afterwards, he called the pending transfer of the Atlanta
system an opportunity to narrow the "digital divide" that separates some
consumers from the information superhighway.

"I don't think there's any doubt that
we're going to look at open access," Campbell said. "AT&T wants to get
the merger done quickly. But these opportunities exist very rarely. And as more technology
become available, we want as much as possible for the people of Atlanta, and particularly
our children."

AT&T officials were not surprised by Campbell's
comments. "I think it's prudent to say he wants to discuss it," AT&T
spokesman Bryant Steele said, "and we'll discuss it with anybody who wants
to."

Nevertheless, Steele added, AT&T continues to maintain
that local jurisdictions lack the authority to unbundle cable operators' broadband
networks.

So far, the access issue has not surfaced in transfer
discussions involving 60 area franchises serving 570,000 subscribers in eight counties,
MediaOne spokesman Reg Griffin said.

But despite AT&T's warnings against "reading
too much" into the mayor's remarks, Campbell spokesman Jabari Simama noted that
the city was serious enough about the issue to sign an amicus curiae brief filed with the
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals supporting cities' rights to review open access.

Moreover, Campbell sits on the Federal Communications
Commission's State and Local Government Advisory Committee, a group of municipal
regulators that tried unsuccessfully to persuade the commission to open a docket on open
access. He also chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Communications Committee.

The city's law department is currently reviewing
several issues it will raise when it sits down to discuss AT&T's transfer request
in about two weeks, Simama said.

"It's too early to say what we might
recommend," added Simama, who serves as director of the Atlanta Office of Marketing
and Communications. "There are arguments on both sides. But [open access] has to be
one that you'd look at."

Predictably, the issue of compelling cable operators to
make broadband data-carrying capacity available to other Internet-service providers
dominated virtually every session at the NATOA conference -- with "a conspicuously
mixed reaction" among members, incoming NATOA president Ron Mallard said.

"I've talked to some people who support
Portland's action and others who feel that open access, as a reality, has a ways to
go," Mallard said. "As I hear it, people are anxiously waiting to see what
happens in Congress, the FCC or the appeals court."

AT&T has asked the Ninth Circuit to overturn a
district-court decision allowing Oregon's Portland and Multnomah counties to require
AT&T to provide access to area ISPs.

One NATOA member, who asked for anonymity, warned that an
appellate-court victory may amount to "winning the battle but losing the war."

Portland's franchise, that member said, contained
enabling language not found in most agreements. He predicted that cities that use a
Portland victory to jump on the open-access bandwagon may see themselves "squashed in
court."

Others lacking "Portland's deep pockets"
will bypass the access issue completely, rather than risking costly legal fights, he
added.

"It's going to come down to, 'OK, police, or
cable; streets, or cable,'" he said.

A better strategy, he added, may be to wait until a
franchise is up for renewal, when a city can declare access to the operator's network
as necessary for the community's future telecommunications needs.

Perhaps a setback for access proponents was a surprising
admission at the conference by an official from Broward County, Fla., where, at the urging
of local ISPs, an ordinance was passed forcing cable operators to unbundle their local
networks.

"But six weeks later, no ISP has approached any cable
company," said Leslie Stout, cable and telecommunications coordinator for the county.
"We were told that the ISPs wanted it, but none has requested access. We did it
because we thought it would be good for competition. And competition would drive down
costs, and lower costs would be good for consumers."

Meanwhile, Cox Communications Inc. dodged a bullet in
Fairfax County, Va., last week, when local officials determined that state law prevented
them from imposing open-access requirements on its acquisition of 240,000 Media General
Inc. subscribers.

The board of supervisors voted unanimously to transfer
Media General's franchise after Cox began renegotiating life-of-the-franchise
contracts with area multiple-dwelling units and agreed to a 5 percent franchise fee on its
high-speed Internet service, plus 3 percent for PEG-access (public, educational and
government) support.

Related