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ISPs Form Coalition In Bid For Open Access

The nation's leading Internet service providers (ISPs) Wednesday announced the founding of the OpenNET Coalition. The Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group plans to motivate regulators to take action on the issue of open access to cable.

Founding members of the coalition includes MCI WorldCom, America Online, MindSpring, Prodigy, US WEST, Netscape, Cable and Wireless USA Inc., Washington Association of Internet Service Providers, CyberRamp, Bertelsmann Internet Services, FlashNet Communications, ConnectNet and Texas Internet Service Providers Association.

The organization is dedicated "to promoting consumer's rights to obtain affordable, high-speed Internet access from the provider of their choice. The group intends to prevent the cable industry from becoming a major broadband gatekeeper," according to the coalition.

"Cable operators propose to substitute their ISP for yours. What they want to do is anti-consumer, anti-competitive and it violates the spirit of the Internet," according to the coalition.

The coalition's goal is to maintain the Internet's competitive nature through consumer choice. The members of the OpenNET Coalition believe that competition among ISPs over all last-mile broadband networks will lower prices, encourage innovation, and advance the social and economic benefits of the Internet.

"The Internet works because it is open. We cannot allow cable companies to change that basic fact by giving their own Internet Service Providers exclusive access to the cable broadband connection to consumers' homes," said Greg Simon, co-director of the OpenNET Coalition and former chief domestic policy advisor to Vice President Gore.

Rich Bond, co-director of the coalition and former Chairman of the Republican National Committee added that "if cable operators are able to stifle the vibrantly competitive Internet Service Provider market by requiring customers to purchase cable affiliated ISP service, they will be pouring sand in the engine of Internet growth."

Earlier this month the same unofficial group sent a joint letter to the Federal Communications Commission urging the FCC to ensure that consumers have a choice of Internet Service Provider over cable broadband networks. Last week the FCC decided to postpone any decision on whether ISPs had the right to lease access on cable companies' pipes to offer their own advanced data services.

Cable companies contend that they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrading their cable systems. Cable companies believe that any regulation to forces the companies to open their networks to ISPs would undermine their market position.

The open access to cable issue is considered critical to the survival of ISPs, since cable modems are the most common broadband access device used by consumers. Digital subscriber lines (DSL) and wireless Internet access that use existing phone lines round out the current choices for ISP growth through broadband alternatives.

The OpenNET coalition is the first organized lobbying group staffed by Washington insiders on a mission to press the FCC for open access. The group also plans to work with Congress in an effort to find a legislative solution.

Several legislators, including Rep. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), the Ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection have voiced their support for the coalition's stance. Markey sent a letter to FCC Chairman William E. Kennard earlier this month requesting that "the Commission remain steadfast in insisting on the full implementation of the Telecommunications Act, a statute designed and intended to ultimately open all telecommunications markets to full, unfettered, free market competition."

The coalition joins consumer groups and municipal policymakers have also addressed arguments for open access in cable networks. Officials in Portland, Oregon recently denied a cable transfer from TCI to AT&T when the companies refused to abide by the city's open access rules. The city has appealed directly to the FCC to help support their position on the matter and the ruling is currently under review.