RealTime IT News

San Francisco Approaches Open Access With Caution

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors have amended the city's franchise agreement with AT&T Corp. to include a provision that will allow the city to impose open access rules.

The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 late Monday to approve AT&T's $48 billion acquisition of Tele-Communications Inc. in San Francisco. But the board also withheld the right to reconsider open access when an Oregon court involving the issue is decided in October.

The city officials plan to review the issue of open access to cable networks again in December, when its franchise agreement allows it to unilaterally impose open access.

By passing a non-binding resolution calling for non-discriminatory access to broadband services, local officials required the city to monitor the broadband marketplace as the industry matures.

The board further agreed that the city would file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Portland, Ore.'s battle against AT&T Corp. in the federal courts.

Last month, a Portland federal judge ruled city officials could require AT&T to open its lines to competitors there. That decision has prompted a several local governments to try and impose the same restrictions.

Lois Hedg-peth, AT&T western regional president, said that the real winners in the battle over mandatory access to cable networks were San Franciso Bay area consumers.

"Today's decision is a real win for San Francisco residents. City officials did the right thing for consumers," Hedg-peth said. "The vote to approve the cable franchise transfer to AT&T means San Francisco will have a real choice for local telephone service, high-speed access to the Internet and enhanced cable programming over a single cable line."

Hedg-peth said AT&T is anxious to begin the work and make a $50 million investment to upgrade San Francisco's cable system.

"We look forward to working with city officials on an in-depth study of the developments affecting high-speed Internet access services. Most cities that have engaged in such a study are recognizing that letting the marketplace grow and develop is the best way to ensure broad deployment of these new services at competitive and affordable prices."

San Francisco's vote partially follows similar trends in Portland, Oregon, and Broward County, Florida, requiring AT&T to sell open access to its high-speed cable network.

In related news, AT&T Monday filed a federal lawsuit against Broward County, Fla., in a bid to overturn the county's decision requiring the company to open its high-speed Internet service to competitors.

Mark Rosenblum, AT&T vice president, said the county lacked authority to impose the open-access condition on its cable network. Rosenblum added that cable access is merely an alternative form of Internet access and the technology should not be subject to monopolistic scrutiny.

"New cable services like Internet access and local telephone service give consumers more choice, not less."

John Raposa, GTE associate general council, said that GTE may provide legal assistance to the Broward County Board.

"They have a small county attorney office," Raposa said. "We wanted to offer them with the financial support they will need to effectively respond to the vast array of high priced lawyers AT&T will throw at this."

The openNET Coalition hailed San Franciso's adoption of an open access policy. Greg Simon, openNET Coalition co-director, said local officials possess provincial wisdom when determining who would have access to local cable networks.

"From Northern California to Southern Florida, communities are taking a stand and voting for what is best for their citizens," Simon said. "San Francisco officials understand the importance of open access and that's why they are supporting Portland."

Excite@Home issued a brief statement in support of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approval of the transfer of TCI's cable franchise license to AT&T.

However, Matt Wolfrom, Excite@Home spokesperson also noted that the Federal Communications Commission recommended that local officials follow a hands-off policy toward cable access issues until the market evolves.

"Having studied the matter extensively, the FCC and staff of the City of Los Angeles have concluded that non-intervention by local governments in the nascent broadband market is in the best interests of both consumers and the industry."

Wolfrom added that the "marketplace is producing more choices and lower prices far more effectively than government regulation of the Internet would do."