The first Massachusetts community to issue a competitive
cable franchise has taken Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard at
Somerville, Mass., a Boston suburb of 80,000, fired the
latest shot in the open-access wars last week, when it became the first local franchising
authority to ask the FCC to open a docket on the controversial issue.
Specifically, Somerville wants an advisory opinion on
whether LFAs can force a cable operator to allow Internet-service providers on its
high-speed platform in exchange for a franchise transfer.
The city was presumably responding to Kennard's remarks at
the National Show in May, when he said he would welcome an industry request for an
official proceeding on open access.
"We decided to take him up on his offer," said
Paul C. Trane, spokesman for Telecommunications Insight Group, a Somerville-based
consultancy that's advising the city. "We want an opinion on what the rules
The subject of open access has been expected to surface at
the local level, as hundreds of municipalities review AT&T Corp.'s proposed $60
billion acquisition of MediaOne Group Inc.
In the case of Somerville, the city is weighing a transfer
request that would shift 17,200 MediaOne subscribers to AT&T Broadband & Internet
MediaOne officials said they expect Kennard to stick to his
"hands off" approach to the Internet. "We would anticipate that will be the
message," MSO spokesman Rick Jenkinson said.
Industry-watchers agreed that it was unlikely that Kennard
would oblige the city, noting that he recently rejected a similar request from the FCC
State & Local Government Committee, a collection of municipal officials who advise the
Nevertheless, Somerville Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay -- who,
under Massachusetts law, has the final say on MediaOne's transfer request -- left no doubt
as to her position.
In her filing with the agency, she said, "The
imposition of open-access requirements is within our power," as stated under the
Cable Act, which allows LFAs to deny a transfer if they believe it would hurt competition
in their market.
And arguably, Kelly Gay said, high-speed Internet access
over cable "poses a threat" to consumers' ability to choose their own ISPs.
The city is being supported by Rep. Michael E. Capuano
(D-Mass.), a former mayor of Somerville, who orchestrated a competitive cable franchise in
1997 that brought RCN Corp. in to compete with the city's previous operator, Time Warner
In a letter to FCC secretary Magalie R. Salas, Capuano said
preserving and enhancing competition is at the heart of an LFA's authority, and he urged
the agency to comply with Kelly Gay's request.
"The matter of open access is a matter of
competition," he wrote, "and for the reasons set forth in Mayor Kelly Gay's
petition, it is properly before the issuing authorities as they consider AT&T's
Meanwhile, Jenkinson said, the Massachusetts Department of
Telecommunications and Energy recently appointed a special magistrate to officiate over
regional hearings on MediaOne's transfer requests.
The magistrate, who has not submitted his report yet,
repeatedly said during the hearings that open access does not fall under the criteria the
department has set for LFAs considering transfers. Those criteria consist solely of the
legal, technical, managerial and legal capabilities of the entity acquiring the franchise,
MediaOne is spending $1.3 billion to upgrade its New
England networks, and it anticipates introducing its Road Runner Internet service in
Somerville by year's end.
"In the meantime, we'll continue educating our
customers and local officials," Jenkinson said. "We'll keep telling them that
our network is open, and that we don't believe any local, state or federal agencies should
be regulating the Internet."
Nevertheless, Trane predicted, "This is an issue
that's not going to go away. We just want a regulatory framework that all sides can live