Public-Interest Groups Follow AOLs Lead


Washington -- A few well-known public-interest groups are
continuing their campaign to force cable operators to give high-speed cable-modem
subscribers unfettered access to the Internet-service providers of their choice.

Although the groups are offering a range of potential
fixes, their basic massage is clear: Cable operators must open their networks to Internet

The cable industry opposes such a move, claiming that the
imposition of mandatory access rules would increase consumer costs and slow investment in
the technology that is necessary for making cable wires the speediest connection to the

At a press conference two weeks ago loaded with anti-cable
rhetoric, leaders from the Consumers Union, the Media Access Project, the Center for Media
Education and the Consumer Project on Technology said the government had to intervene to
block the cable industry from monopolizing the Internet market.

"This free flow of information that characterizes the
Internet now could be choked off by the business practices of the cable monopoly,"
said Cheryl Leanza, the MAP's deputy director.

The groups claimed to have no financial ties to America
Online Inc., the Internet-access giant that is calling on Congress and the Federal
Communications Commission to pry open cable networks.

But Leslie Harris, a publicist based here who organized the
press conference, said she is being paid by AOL to popularize "nondiscriminatory
access across platforms."

Spokespeople for the groups said they are just as concerned
about local telephone companies taking control of the Internet as they are about cable
companies doing so. But judging from the bulk of their comments, it is cable that has them
concerned the most.

"There is … a very real and present danger,
principally presented by the nation's largest cable companies," said Jeff
Chester, the CME's executive director.

The press conference wasn't their first swing at
cable. In January, many of the same groups sent a letter to FCC chairman William Kennard,
urging him to consider adopting rules on cable-network unbundling.

Chester said the CME would support a rule that would allow
cable-modem subscribers to sign up with whatever ISPs they choose. He added that the
bundling of the ISP and high-speed transport was anti-competitive.

In broad terms, Leanza said she supported some kind of
open-access regime, although she wasn't specific.

"We don't want AT&T-TCI [AT&T Broadband
& Internet Services, formerly Tele-Communications Inc.] to give away their
plant," she said. "We want them to negotiate a reasonable price."

Jamie Love, director of the CPT -- an organization that he
started with consumer advocate Ralph Nader -- said he wanted the government to bar cable
operators from linking subscription to high-speed Internet service to the purchase of
cable-television programming.

"You already have cable operators saying, 'If you
want our fast Internet access, you have to buy our cable-video services,'" Love
said, claiming that cable was deliberately combining the two products to "squeeze DBS
[direct-broadcast satellite]."

Gene Kimmelman, Washington office co-director of the
Consumers Union and a longtime cable critic, said he favored as a first step legislation
proposed by the OpenNet Coalition, an Internet business lobby that includes AOL.

Although it has not endorsed any legislation, OpenNet
leaders have said that they support a ban on exclusive contracts between cable operators
and their affiliated ISPs, such as @Home Network and Road Runner.

But Kimmelman said Congress should probe even deeper to
ensure that cable can't exercise control over unaffiliated ISPs. "We are talking
about an even broader equal-access concept," he said. "These are true
common-carriage principles."

Telecommunications analyst Kevin Werbach -- managing editor
of Internet theorist Esther Dyson's newsletter, Release 1.0 -- had a different
rationale for fighting cable's Internet strategy. He said the inability of multiple
ISPs to reach end-users via cable would frustrate cable's ability to penetrate the
consumer market with broadband products.

New York-based Werbach, who participated in the news
conference on a speakerphone, said cable's "vertical-integration model,"
which exposed subscribers to one ISP, would "slow the growth of the Internet and the
deployment of broadband access."

Werbach's point seemed to clash with the views of the
other participants. He seemed to be saying that cable's Internet strategy was doomed
to fail, while the others were predicting stunning success.

Nick Miller, a cable attorney based here who represents
local governments, told reporters that he and other cable-access critics shouldn't be
criticized for failure to generate a consensus position.

He said his primary mission is to alert Washington
lawmakers and officials that local governments are deeply concerned about preserving the
openness of the Internet.

"The first step is to get a concession from the
appropriate policymakers that there is a substantial consumer interest here," Miller
said. "I don't think that it's fair to come to us and say that we
don't have political consensus on the solution when we are not even being heard by
the policymakers."