RealTime IT News

Surprise! FCC Cable Ruling Challenged

In a move that came as no surprise to anyone in the telecommunications industry, the Media Access Project (MAP) filed a lawsuit Monday afternoon against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over its decision to keep America's cable networks closed.

Nearly two weeks ago, the FCC took a major step towards deregulating the telecommunications industry by ruling high-speed Internet services via cable an "information" rather than "telecom" service, freeing cable operators from provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

MAP filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on behalf of the Consumers Union, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Consumer Federation of America, its three citizens groups, to challenge the ruling.

Andy Schwartzman, MAP president, said he expects his lawsuit to join a raft of other challenges to the FCC ruling, given the anticompetitive nature of the rulemaking.

This is a First Amendment concern, he said, which strikes at the heart of the American consumer's freedom to choose interactive services. Failure to overturn the FCC's decision, he added, would take away that choice.

"If (the decision) is not reversed on appeal, users will have a closed network that will replicate all of the problems that monopoly cable television service has brought to the public over the years," Schwartzman said, "no choice of provider, lousy customer service and content that is selected and controlled by the cable operator, rather than by the user.

Verizon Communications , one of four incumbent telephone companies providing digital subscriber line (DSL) service, chimed in with a petition filed at the FCC Monday evening.

The petition respectfully called the FCC ruling "arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion," when compared with the treatment of the incumbents and their broadband service.

The telephone companies are required by the Telecom Act to provide "open access" to its network for ISPs, at below-cost prices. The cable companies have no such stricture, and likely won't if the FCC's ruling sticks.

Bob Bishop, Verizon spokesperson, said the petition isn't just the latest round of maneuvering between the two industries for position, but an attempt for parity.

"We filed the petition based on the disparate treatment of cable modems and telephony broadband when they are a like service," Bishop said. "Our petition was simply filed to preserve our argument that these two services should be treated alike in the regulatory arena."

Many ISPs consider the telephone company's attitude towards "parity" a thinly-veiled attempt to gain regulatory relief from the FCC itself to control their network. Despite more leeway from the pro-business Bush Administration appointee to chair the FCC, Michael Powell, the Baby Bells have been pushing harder than ever to free themselves from the Telecom Act.

"We would not wish the regulatory regime that exists on our broadband service, on the cable people -- that is not the solution to the problem," Bishop said. "We feel, that insofar as their service is deregulated, our service should be treated the same in the regulatory environment."

Open access, or forced access if you are a cable company owner, would allow independent Internet service providers (ISPs) a chance to provide competitive high-speed Internet service on cable networks -- similar to how providers offer digital subscriber line (DSL) access on telephone company lines.

To date, only one major cable operator, AOL Time Warner , has open access to its network -- one of several of conditions placed by the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to ensure industry competitiveness for the nation's second-largest cable operator, No. 1 dial-up ISP and "old media" giant.

AT&T Broadband , the largest cable network in the U.S., and the other national networks, free from regulatory oversight, have incremental open access plans and won't start allowing ISPs access to the network until later this year at the earliest in select markets.

Both the petition by Verizon and the MAP lawsuit are months away from any resolution. Schwartzman said the courts likely won't look at the suit for another several months, while the Verizon complaint doesn't have any sort of deadline for resolution.

If successful, the MAP suit could negate the FCC rulemaking or force the agency to revise their position. Something similar, though with exactly the opposite effect, happened back in May 2000, when a federal judge overturned a decision by the Henrico County, Va., board of supervisors to force AT&T to open up its cable network in the county.