A hot debate regarding "open access" is heatingup in cities and municipalities across the country and in Virginia.
The question looming before regulators and legislators iswhether cable companies should be required to open up their broadband technology tocompeting Internet-service providers.
Broadband technology, which provides high-speed Internetaccess through cable lines, promises to change the way Americans receive information. Alsocalled the "fat pipe," the technology converges the delivery of telephone,Internet and even video services.
The question of open access has far-reaching implicationsrelated to consumer choice, pricing and service, as well as to the future of ourstate's booming Internet economy.
The issue hit home in Virginia in early October, when theFairfax City Council voted 4-2 to require its new cable-television provider, CoxCommunications Inc., to open its high-speed lines to other ISPs.
In other cases, the debate has come to the forefront withAT&T Corp.'s purchase of Tele-Communications Inc. and its pending purchase ofMediaOne Group Inc. Those acquisitions will give the telecommunications company 60 percentcontrol of the cable market.
AT&T is refusing to allow independent ISPs to providebroadband access to cable customers on the same terms and conditions as its own affiliatedISP. This will leave consumers who want broadband Internet access only one choice --AT&T and its affiliate ISP.
Consumer groups, independent ISPs and other telephonecompanies are leading the charge to convince regulators and government officials thatcable operators must make their high-speed broadband networks available to others.Competition in cable-based Internet services will affect price, quality and innovation inthe communications marketplace, both for traditional and new-generation services.
The issue has gained national recognition since Portland,Ore., imposed an open-access requirement as a condition for local approval ofAT&T's acquisition of TCI. AT&T sued to have the condition thrown out, but afederal judge ruled in Portland's favor, and AT&T is appealing the decision.
Portland was the first locality to assert Internet-accessrights on behalf of its residents. Since then, Broward County, Fla., and the city ofFairfax have required open access. And other communities across the country are grapplingwith the issue.
As the burgeoning Internet shoulders more and moreelectronic-commerce and communications traffic, the demand for speed on the World Wide Webhas grown.
Telephone companies are rolling out a high-speed technologycalled digital-subscriber-line service, or DSL, which provides high-speed Internet accesscomparable to cable modems.
Still, cable modems are shaping up as the most popular wayto deliver speedy Net connections to U.S. households. Goldman, Sachs & Co. hasestimated that 73 million U.S. homes will use the broadband technology by 2008, comparedwith about 1 million now.
Without deregulation, AT&T will exercise a monopoly inlocking users into a closed, proprietary network. Only by ensuring that all players haveequal access to the broadband connection can the Internet continue to benefit frominnovation and competitive pricing.
Until now, open access over phone lines has allowed theInternet to thrive and provided consumers with a host of choices related to service,capacity, speed and pricing. As a result, independent ISPs have prospered and brought theInternet to communities around the globe.
The issue threatens the livelihood of hundreds ofindependent ISPs, and it could significantly impact other Virginia-based businesses thatmanufacture and distribute hardware and software technology.
Vinton G. Serf, MCI WorldCom Inc.'s senior vicepresident for Internet architecture and technology, wrote the following in an op-ed piecein The Wall Street Journal:
"The skyrocketing growth of Internet applicationsunder the current open-access model is proof that open access to the Internet leads moreplayers to make greater investments, spurring innovation and benefiting everyone."
He also wrote that AT&T's position is inconsistentwith its own history, since the company has spent years since its 1984 breakup demandingthat its Baby Bell offspring provide access to the local telephone network.
To date, the Federal Communications Commission has declinedto intervene.
Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.)introduced federal legislation last spring that would ensure consumer choice of ISP."We shouldn't have different regulations apply to a telephone company and acable company when they are providing the same service," Boucher has said. And Rep.Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has offered a joint concurrent resolution.
Last summer, the National Association of Counties passed aresolution that local governments should have the right to require cable companies toprovide open access. The association has also urged the FCC and Congress to develop anational policy that requires open access.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Radio-television andTelecommunications Commission has required cable companies to open their high-speedInternet networks to competition throughout Canada and to offer competitive ISPsdiscounts.
Localities should follow the city of Fairfax's lead toprevent cable companies from exercising monopolistic control of broadband Internet access.
Mandated open access is not government meddling in acompetitive market. Open access has, in fact, long been at the heart of U.S.communications policy and the model for our national information infrastructure. There areno legal impediments, and it need not be complex.
Deregulation is critical to ensure that Internet servicesremain competitive, accessible and devoid of entry barriers.
Scott Silverthorne, a city councilman in Fairfax, Va.,sponsored the open-access provision that recently passed. He is also director ofgovernment relations for Capital One Financial Corp.