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Open-Access Petition Under Attack in Massachusetts

A group calling itself the Massachusetts Coalition for Consumer Choice and Competition on the Internet Wednesday accused AT&T Corp. and MediaOne Group of attempting to deny voters the right to decide whether to make open access a statewide policy.

Facing a Dec. 1 deadline, the coalition is staking out shopping malls and recycling centers across Massachusetts trying to gather the 57,000 signatures required to get an initiative on the November 2000 ballot. The group's petition seeks to give voters a chance to chose whether to require cable companies to sell access to Internet service providers as a condition of approving the modification or transfer of a cable license.

This past weekend, AT&T (T) and MediaOne (UMG), which control 60 percent of the cable lines in the state, launched a television ad blitz aimed at snuffing out the initiative.

"They don't want consumers to have choice and apparently they don't want voters to decide, because the basis of the ad is, `Don't sign the petition. Don't let this get on the ballot,'" said Stephen Allen, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Coalition.

The push for a statewide referendum on open access comes as similar battles are simultaneously being fought at the local level nationwide. Best known is in Portland, Ore., where local regulators have required cable franchisees to offer open access to ISPs. That strategy has resulted in huge legal bills for the city, after AT&T responded with a lawsuit that's now in federal appeals court. In Massachusetts, the city of Cambridge also said it will require open access as a condition of approving the city's license transfer from MediaOne to AT&T.

According to Allen, fighting for open access on the state level has inherent advantages over the local approach.

"AT&T just takes them to court or tells the community it won't offer cable access there, which ends the debate. But when a whole state is offered up, they have to deal with it. They can't just decide not to offer Internet access to an entire state."

Despite the ad campaign from AT&T and MediaOne, Allen believes the Coalition can be successful. He says that Massachusetts is served by more than 500 ISPs and over 80,000 people in the state are employed by ISPs, including Boston-based HarvardNet, which has already joined the coalition.

"They want a level playing field so they can compete, and consumers want a choice, so those are two areas where we should see strong support," said Allen, who added that "tens of thousands" of voters have already signed the petition.

Contrary to claims made in the AT&T ad, the Coalition has no ties to Bell Atlantic or any other big AT&T competitor in the area, according to Allen. MediaOne and AT&T representatives were not immediately available for comment.