Municipal regulators get to hear Federal Communications
Commission chairman William Kennard defend his position this week on access to
cable's high-speed platform.
Kennard will speak at the National Association of
Telecommunications Officers and Advisors Conference in Atlanta, where the access debate --
along with the FCC's new cable-ownership rules -- will undoubtedly monopolize the
Not surprisingly, registration for the conference is
running 25 percent ahead of last year's turnout, when some 700 attendees converged on
The first FCC chair to address the NATOA, Kennard has been
on the hot seat since saying at the National Show earlier this year that cities lack the
authority to require open access.
He further complicated his relationship with local
franchising authorities by filing an amicus curiae brief with the Ninth Circuit Court of
Appeals in support of AT&T Corp.'s open-access fight against Oregon's
Portland and Multnomah counties.
As a result, some NATOA members believe a growing number of
cities now see the access debate as a fight for "municipal rights over
"I wouldn't call it a groundswell -- yet,"
NATOA board member Brenda Trainor said, "but the FCC says there should be a national
policy, and that the policy should be, 'Do nothing.' It's a pre-emption of
local rights to yield nothing."
Portland and Multnomah counties triggered the access battle
last year by ordering that AT&T unbundle its @Home Network in exchange for a transfer
of their Tele-Communications Inc. franchises. Since then, Broward County, Fla., has become
the latest LFA to require open access.
Trainor said Kennard was apparently extending an olive
branch to the cities by attending the conference during the same week that the FCC was
expected to unveil its new cable-ownership rules.
By the middle of last week, though, it appeared that the
commission would push back the vote, after AT&T lobbied heavily for more time.
Trainor said she expects the membership to offer a cordial
reception, "but a lot of friendly faces everywhere may be a little bit of a
The NATOA board of directors voted recently to join San
Francisco in filing an amicus curiae brief with the Ninth Circuit in support of Portland
and Multnomah counties. The court was scheduled to hear oral arguments Oct. 6 in
AT&T's bid to overturn a lower-court ruling upholding the LFAs' rights to
require open access. That hearing was postponed last week, with no new date set.
"It's a jurisdictional filing," outgoing
NATOA president Jane Lawton said. "We're supporting a city's right to look
at this issue in support of a competitive environment."
However, one NATOA member, who asked for anonymity,
wasn't convinced that all LFAs understood the open-access issue or its possible
ramifications. "I'm looking forward to hearing it debated at the NATOA
conference, because I think we're still in the learning stage," the local
franchising official said.
Still to be answered, the official added, are technical
questions about what happens when multiple Internet-service providers are allowed to tap
into a cable operator's network. "If you have 20, 50 or 100 ISPs accessing the
network, what does that do to the system's ability to deliver high-speed
service?" he asked.
Lawton said the NATOA membership will also be paying close
attention to the FCC's new cable-ownership rules, which could force AT&T to alter
its deal to buy MediaOne Group Inc. in order to win regulatory approval.
Amid estimates that the MediaOne transaction would give
AT&T access to 60 percent of U.S. cable households, some LFAs worried that the deal
will put upward pressure on rates, while diminishing the company's ability to
maintain quality customer service.
"We're already seeing an increase in the number
of complaints filed," Lawton said. "As a company gets bigger and bigger and it
has to work at a faster pace, its ability to respond to the consumer is reduced."
Unlike last year -- when the industry's presence at
the association's San Diego conference was dominated by AT&T and TCI and the
debate over how many franchising authorities had the right to approve their merger -- this
year's convention will feature a host of industry heavyweights.
Among the executives scheduled to speak are Brian Roberts,
president of Comcast Corp., and Michael Mahoney, president of RCN Corp., a competitive
local-exchange carrier making a big push into the video business.
Meanwhile, attendees will be awaiting word from Fairfax
County, Va., this week, as local officials there were looking at the access question as
part of their review of Cox Communications Inc.'s $1.4 billion acquisition of 240,000
Media General Inc. subscribers.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors put Cox's
franchise transfer request on hold until today (Sept. 13) to give its staff time to assess
the access issue.
Sources reported that Cox has warned county officials that
any open-access requirements would constitute a "deal-breaker" for the MSO.