Mass. Weighs Access Plan

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The Massachusetts legislature has until Wednesday (May 3) to decide whether to pass a bill that will open cable's high-speed-data platform, or to allow a grassroots initiative to go to a vote of the people.

The state attorney general already validated an access initiative. But according to state law, an election can be voided if lawmakers embrace the issue and resolve it via state law.

During a joint hearing on House Bill 5006 by the Massachusetts House government-relations and science and technology committees, cable-industry lobbyists had yet another opportunity to argue that regulation will slow the deployment of broadband.

MediaOne Group Inc. alone has invested more than $1 billion in the state to upgrade its plant to broadband capability, testified Margaret Sofio, the MSO's vice president of law.

In response to the upgrades, she testified, other providers such as RCN Corp. and Bell Atlantic Corp. have stepped up rollouts of their own high-speed products. In addition to greater consumer choice, prices for those services have already started to drop, she added.

Operators also came armed with a new report, commissioned by Consumers and Internet Providers for Technology Competition and written by consultant Stuart Brotman, a Harvard Law School researcher.

Brotman argued that Internet regulation would raise costs for local franchising authorities, which, in turn, would lead to higher consumer costs. Also, broadband deployment could be stalled by regulations that vary from city to city, he said.

Cable also rallied support from state chambers of commerce, three consumer groups and former legislators.

The primary proponents testifying included members of the Massachusetts Coalition for Consumer Choice and Competition, which supported the initiative, as well as GTE Corp. and the OpenNet Coalition. OpenNet supporters argued that true choice includes access to all providers via high-speed.

Cable lobbyists believe this "hot-button" issue is cooling, noting that no consumers testified in favor of open access. One of the MCCCC's highest-profile supporters, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), did not attend but sent a two-line statement.

The America Online Inc.-Time Warner Inc. merger and access-friendly announcements by AT & T Corp., Cox Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp. have taken a lot of steam out of the open-access issue, said Mary McLaughlin, corporate counsel, broadband for MediaOne and chairman of the state operator's ballot-initiative committee.

The fact that competitors have sped to market there has also dulled arguments for the need for regulation.

"Eight or nine months ago, [MediaOne] broadband was really it. Now, Massachusetts is a pretty competitive market. Bell Atlantic is rolling out DSL [digital subscriber line] fast, RCN is building in the suburbs and MCI WorldCom [Inc.] has announced a wireless option," she noted. There are also satellite-delivered options, including Hughes Network Systems' DirecPC.

But McLaughlin indicated that the prospect of a ballot initiative continues to generate heat on AT & T to negotiate opening its platform on a commercial basis earlier than its previously announced 2002 date.

If the legislature fails to act Wednesday, supporters vowed to collect about 10,000 voter signatures and extend the initiative process to a November statewide election.

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