Cable Gets Big Win In Va. Access Case

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A U.S. District Court handed the cable industry a major victory last week when it ruled against an open-access ordinance in Henrico County, Va.

In a verbal ruling, Judge Richard L. Williams said the Telecommunications Act of 1996 pre-empted an ordinance enacted by Henrico County in December that required AT & T Broadband to unbundle the local cable system it was acquiring from MediaOne Group Inc.

But the judge noted that the access controversy-already the subject of a case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals-could be adjudicated differently by the Fourth Circuit Court, if appealed. That could result in the U.S. Supreme Court having to decide the issue.

Nevertheless, AT & T Broadband pronounced itself "delighted" with the ruling, even though Williams' written opinion will not be released for several weeks.

"But it's apparent that the decision agrees with what we've been saying all along: that the marketplace should determine what is in the best interests of consumers," the MSO said in a prepared statement. "It's not a subject appropriate for town-to-town regulation by local franchising authorities."

It was the second victory in three days for cable operators, which, earlier in the week, saw the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy rule that four municipalities overstepped their authority in trying to force AT & T Broadband to allow area Internet-service providers onto its local network.

In its ordinance, the Henrico County Board of Supervisors agreed to transfer the MediaOne franchise to AT & T Broadband, but only if it agreed to open access.

Meanwhile, county officials were hopeful that with its victory, MediaOne will proceed to roll out its high-speed Road Runner Internet service-something it had refused to do pending the district-court ruling.

"Obviously, we're disappointed. We still feel like the citizens of Henrico County should be able to choose from among Internet-service providers," Henrico County attorney Joseph Rapazardo said, adding that it was too early to say whether the county will appeal to the Fourth Circuit.

But an attorney for Bell Atlantic Corp. and GTE Corp.-the telcos that were granted intervenor status by the court-said an appeal would certainly be forthcoming.

"We continue to believe that local franchising authorities have the right to regulate cable-modem service," said Andrew McBride, an attorney with Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that represented the telcos at last week's hearing.

"And the Fourth Circuit has been very zealous in protecting local prerogatives, such as in cell-tower cases," McBride added.