RealTime IT News

Richmond Rules on Open Access

A federal judge in Richmond, Va. this week struck down a Henrico County law that would have forced AT&T Corp. to share its cable lines with rival Internet service providers.

In a decision released Wednesday, Judge Richard Williams of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia ruled that the Henrico County Board of Supervisors exceeded its authority under state and federal law when it adopted the "Open Access" ordinance last December.

In its filing, AT&T identified four separate provisions of federal law which prohibit local authorities from imposing regulations. Judge Williams agreed with the telecom industry leader on each point of law.

AT&T was encouraged by the decision and contends that the ruling evens the score in a national battle over last-mile cable broadband delivery access in the U.S.

Jim McGann, AT&T spokesperson, said the company was very encouraged by Virginia ruling because it is the same question posed in courts by local authorities across the nation.

"This ruling is highly significant because the question posed was essentially the same one raised by local authorities in Portland, Ore. and Broward County, Fla.," McGann said. "Coupled with the overwhelming rejection of such intrusive regulation by other jurisdictions across the country, this federal court decision signals that the proponents of forced access have yet to develop a persuasive rationale for their issue."

The only other federal district court in the country to rule on the merits of this issue upheld a similar ordinance in Portland, Oregon. That case is now on appeal before the Ninth Circuit United Stated Court of Appeals in San Francisco. A decision is overdue and expected at any time.

In March, the United States District Court for Southern Florida turned aside cable industry preemption challenges to a similar Broward County ordinance, finding that the cable companies lacked standing. That case is still before the district court.

Christopher Wolf, President of the Hands Off the Internet Coalition and Internet law expert, said the open access argument needs life support to sustain its original momentum.

"It's hard to see how this decision could have turned out any better," Wolf said. "From both legal and common sense perspectives, the notion that Internet access could be regulated at the state or local levels makes no sense. The Internet is too vast to be tied down by a patchwork quilt of local regulations."

But AT&T's opponents have mounted a robust national crusade to force cable companies to share their systems with rival Internet service providers.

Rich Bond, openNET Coalition co-founder expressed disappointment with the decision, but said the group was optimistic about Henrico County's decision to repeal the court's action and uphold the local mandate.

"The decision is a temporary defeat for consumers in Virginia," Bond said. "By overturning the local government's decision, the Court has taken the right to choose their own ISP out of the hands of consumers and placed it back in the hands of the cable companies."

"The decision is only a short-term defeat," Bond added, "as it now places the case squarely in the hands of the federal appellate court which we expect to swiftly uphold the county's open access requirement."

Henrico County passed the ordinance requiring that local cable franchises owned by AT&T and MediaOne Group subsidiary MediaOne allow consumers to select the ISP of their choice without being obligated to pay for a cable-affiliated ISP.

The openNET Coalition's Bond added that he fully expects the Richmond decision to be