RealTime IT News

Independent ISPs Vow Open Access Fight

WASHINGTON -- Convinced that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has abandoned their concerns, several hundred independent Internet service providers (ISPs) vowed Wednesday to mount a public campaign for open access to cable broadband lines.

Emboldened by a recent court decision that may force the FCC to change its policy exempting cable broadband companies from sharing their lines with other access providers, ISPs attending the semi-annual ISPCON conference here have formed a group called the National Internet Alliance. The alliance's goal is to pressure Congress to make cable high-speed lines available to competitors such as themselves, much the same way incumbent phone carriers are required to make their DSL lines accessible at non-discriminatory rates.

Two years ago, the FCC ruled cable modems are an information service and not subject to the same line access rules as incumbent carriers. The decision prompted Jim Pickrell, president of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Brand X Internet Services, to sue the FCC for access to the cable lines. In October, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Brand X's favor.

The cable companies plan to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court while the FCC said it is still considering its options.

Attorney Harvey Reiter, who represented Brand X, said if the cable companies win the appeal, "The FCC is virtually certain to declare that both cable modem service and DSL service are information services and are unregulated." Pickrell told the ISPs that if Brand X loses the case, "You can just shut your shop. It couldn't be any scarier."

Dave Robertson, president of the Texas Internet Service Providers Association, and other members of the new ISP political movement, claim the FCC supports what they say amounts to communications monopolies as the quickest way to deploy broadband services to consumers.

"We have an ISP from Fairfax, Va., who had an [FCC] commissioner tell her, 'We don't want to hear it, it is over at the FCC. It is over and you are wasting your time,'" said Robertson. "He said it with love in his heart, but he said you might as well leave now. The place where you're going to have any influence is not at the FCC. It's a done deal."

According to a report released last week by InStat/MDR, cable giants Comcast and Time Warner account for the majority of all cable modem subscribers. Overall, six cable operators hold 91 percent of the U.S. cable modem market.

"One of the things we were really worried about is the FCC's attempt to justify monopolistic behavior by these [cable] companies," Pickrell told internetnews.com. "We won the first round, but [FCC Chairman] Michael Powell was very unhappy because he feels having competition would cause uncertainty among these monopolies and the FCC is apparently in charge of protecting monopolies from uncertainty."

Robertson chided the ISPs for a previous lack of unity on the issue.

"Guys, you don't have enough weight. Undoubtedly, we're a group of entrepreneurs, but we don't count. Not to the FCC and not to Congress," Robertson said. "Going in and saying, 'Look, you're cheating or you're screwing ISPs and that's not right,' gets you nowhere. When we talk in terms of the people who are really getting hurt out there -- the consumers -- we're going to have power."

Pickrell made the same point, urging the ISPs to create new business models where "litigation is a part of doing business. We have enough people, we just don't have the unity."

The alliance said it plans to marshal the support of those consumers, millions of whom are independent ISP subscribers.

"To those folks who want to play this game, we're going to find out how many users you have," Robertson said. "We're going to make changes only through Congress. If we can get enough support to pound Congress over the head with this, then there can be hope."

Robertson admitted the new National Internet Alliance has a "pretty tough mountain to climb."

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