RealTime IT News

Broward County Regulators Rule for Open Access

Broward County, Fla., this week became the second county in the nation to force AT&T Corp.to open its cable networks.

The Broward Board of County Commissioners Tuesday voted in favor of mandated cable access for independent Internet service providers.

As proponents chalk-up another win for open access to cable networks, AT&T, MediaOne and Excite@Home have been vehemently thwarting government attempts to force open access to their cable networks in Portland, Miami, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Cable companies contend that their systems have been built with private capital and shouldn't be opened to any company requesting access. They say open access would delay deployment of broadband Internet services over cable and that regulation will only hinder technological advancements.

Ken McNeely, AT&T vice president of law and government affairs-Florida, said that the Broward County decision makes for bad public policy.

"Today's decision is clearly wrong on the law and bad public policy. It will have the unfortunate effect of discouraging investment in technology that would bring a choice of local telephone providers and high speed Internet access services to the citizens of Broward County."

The Broward County ordinance was approved after several weeks of discussion and lobbying efforts. Open-access proponents and ISPs applauded the Florida decision. Greg Simon, co-director of the OpenNet Coalition, said the historic vote was good for cable modem consumers and the cable business.

"The people of Broward County will be the long-term beneficiaries of this historic vote," Simon said. "These commissioners understood that competition is good for small business, good for consumers and good for the local economy."

Robert Palucci, a local Florida ISP owner, testified before the commission and was present for Tuesday's decision believes the future of his business was on the line. Palucci said the decision is a fantastic victory for all ISPs nationwide.

"If this vote did not pass, I would have been put out of business. If we were not successful yesterday we could have sold our equipment today," Palucci said. "I just hope other municipalities will vote for open access because without it, everyone will lose."

Last spring, Portland, Ore., became the first municipality to deny AT&T a monopoly on cable services. AT&T sued the city but a federal judge ruled in the city's favor last month, saying that local communities have the right to decide what is best for the citizens. AT&T has appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A ruling is expected to be delivered early in October.

As part of its recent acquisitions of Tele-Communications Inc. and MediaOne, AT&T must ask city and county officials to transfer local cable franchises. In the process, local regulators can require AT&T to open its network to competitors. The result is dozens of cities will be facing similar decisions as AT&T applies for franchise transfers in the coming months.

The Federal Communications Commission has maintained a hands-off stance on the mandated cable access issue. Chairman William E. Kennard had no comment on the Florida action. However, Kennard openly spoke about his concerns last month. He said that a patchwork of local regulations requiring cable open access would create "chaos" in the industry.

As local regulators continue to decide the issue of mandated cable access for their respective cities and counties, the FCC is under increasing pressure to take a stand and enact national policy toward open access.

John Raposa, GTE associate general council, said federal regulators have turned a blind eye to consumers.

"What we need is an effective national policy on open access to cable networks," Raposa said. "When the FCC says they have a hands-off policy, that's code translates to a do nothing policy that can only hurt consumers."

Jonathan B. Sallet, MCI WorldCom chief policy counsel, predicts there will be a national policy in regard to open access even if the FCC fails to regulate the issue.

"The FCC has decided to stay on the sidelines. If they stay there, we'll continue to get local governments determining that open access is good for their communities. There will be one united policy in favor of consumer choice at the end of the day."