Venturas Unbundling Play Slammed

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Minnesota state lawmakers last week seemingly quashed Gov. Jesse Ventura's bid to force cable operators to unbundle their high-speed networks.

Moreover, an attempt by Ventura supporters to amend open-access language to Senate legislation that would provide funding to rural communities lacking access to the Internet also failed, leaving the issue dead for this session.

But whether the access question resurfaces when lawmakers reconvene next year remains problematic.

"It depends on what happens in the interim," Minnesota Cable Telecommunications Association executive director Mike Martin said. "If we see AT & T [Broadband] and Time Warner [Cable] continue their policy of negotiating with Internet-service providers, or if the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rules in cable's favor and against Portland [Ore.], then this issue may not come back. But if we're still where we stand today, it will come back."

As part of his "Big Plan" for the state's telecommunications market, Ventura had proposed that operators offering telephone or Internet services over cable be regulated in the same manner as the state's local-exchange carriers. This would have meant interconnecting with other service providers, or the equivalent of open access for ISPs.

The measure was introduced by Sen. Steve Kelley and assigned to the Senate Jobs and Energy Committee, where it languished. "Basically, there was a lot of testimony that it needed work," Martin said.

Kelley subsequently tried to attach access language to a second bill designed to help rural communities gain access to the Internet. Originally, he wanted the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to "adopt" rules ordering access by March 15, 2001. That was later softened to require that the PUC "propose" rules by that date.

Kelley later withdrew his amendment after a bid to work out a compromise with cable operators failed.

Meanwhile, the Ventura administration was not taking its Senate defeat lying down.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce has asked the PUC to reconsider its February decision to close a docket on open access. The commission had earlier separated the issue from its review of AT & T Corp.'s acquisition of Media-One Group Inc., the state's largest operator. It later gave the deal its blessing.

In its petition, the DOC said the PUC should reconsider because open access was too important to ignore and the PUC was the only agency with the authority to address the issue.

Moreover, it said, the circumstances surrounding the agency's aborted investigation "compel the continuation of the docket until the important technical, economic and policy issues are fully developed."

In closing the access docket, the PUC indicated, "Cable-modem broadband networks are immature, lack market share and are still developing their service offerings."

But the DOC countered by insisting that the record offered no evidence supporting those conclusions, arguing that cable operators would be the only providers of high-speed Internet services for years to come.

The commission is expected to take up the department's petition at its regular meeting this week. At press time, DOC officials were unavailable for comment.

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