In the wake of the U.S. District Court ruling Friday declaring open access
unconstitutional, AT&T Broadband outlined its solution to include
independent Internet service providers on its cable network.
And unless the Federal Trade Commission sets a precedent with the merger
conditions of America Online, Inc. and Time Warner, Inc., it’s a platform
liable to be an industry standard.
AT&T Broadband’s open access solution, dubbed AT&T Choice, says any ISP
that wants to be on its network can, as long as they pass reliability
tests. The tests, they say, are only compatibility measures to ensure
proprietary software doesn’t crash the entire network.
To determine the feasibility of this process, field trials are being
conducted with eight ISPs in Boulder, CO. The field tests, officials said,
will prove the feasibility of getting a customer set up with cable Internet
access with several ISPs on the same network.
The first step in AT&T Broadband’s consumer walk-through determines the
connectivity settings and appropriate routing necessary to get the customer
The second step takes the user to a Web page with the independent ISPs that
are providing competing services on the network. It is entirely up to the
individual to decide which ISP they want to go with, AT&T officials said,
and no one ISP has an advantage over the other. AT&T Broadband’s service,
whether it’s Road Runner or @Home will get the same exposure as any other,
The third step involves self-diagnostic software that seeks out and
corrects customer connectivity and service issues before it becomes a
problem. After determining the problem, the appropriate agency is
informed, whether it’s AT&T network administrators or the ISP.
Carl Smith, AT&T Broadband director of advanced products, said the company
is obligated to make sure the customer’s setup process is as painless and
efficient as possible. To do that right, he said it’s going to take a long
“We’ve been approaching this from a customer point of view,” Smith
said. “The testing is going well and we’re ramping up our service with the
other participating ISPs. Something like this takes a significant amount
of time to develop, and we’re making sure that it’s done right, so that
consumers have a dependable product.”
AT&T’s timetable on the field tests is what has many critics
skeptical. The tests, which include a second set of tests in Massachusetts
at the end of 2001, finish around the same its exclusivity contracts with
@Home and RoadRunner end.
In all fairness, however, Time Warner has been less than hasty in its goal
of incorporating independent ISPs on its cable network.
Mike Luftman, Time Warner spokesperson, said its ongoing feasibility tests
in Columbus, OH, have just got into gear, with three independents ISPs yet
to be added to the mix.
Currently AOL, Compuserve and RoadRunner are the only ISPs in the
program. Juno Online Services, Inc., Microsoft Network and RMI.NET are
expected to be included soon, Luftman said.
It should be noted: the three ISPs participating in Time Warner’s
feasibility tests are owned by either AOL or Time Warner.
He said the company expects to be finished with the tests in late 2001 to
Critics point to the cable industry’s regulation in Canada, where the
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission mandated an
open access policy, with cable network owners reselling its product for 25
percent less than its lowest retail price.
Jay Thomson, Canadian Association of Internet Providers president, said his
country has gone through this process already, with third party ISP access
available in the first quarter 2001.
“We have conducted field tests here in Canada with VideoTron and AOL
Canada, field tests that have shown that the technolog
y is there to allow
ISPs on the existing network,” Thomson said. “Technical tests were
conducted in the spring with VideoTron and UUNet Canada and it was
determined there was no impediments.”
But Canada’s resell policy has met with mixed results. Many smaller ISPs
participating in the program right now have been unsuccessful providing the
service, prompting the CRTC to take another look at its policy.
The mixed results play into the hands of cable owners, who insist the
market should impose its own standards, not the government.
“If the government were to become involved in the process, it would slow
everything down,” Smith said. “We’re moving ahead to finish up the tests
and get a good product out.”
And for now, the courts are inclined to agree with cable owners, although
some analysts are unsure how well the First Amendment defense cited by the
cable owners will hold up in the appeals process.
In a statement released to the press after Thursday’s decision to uphold
cable owners rights, Mark Rosenblum, AT&T vice president of law, lauded the
“This ruling is the third in a row since last summer invalidating
“forced-access” ordinances adopted by local franchise authorities,”
Rosenblum said. “There should no longer be any doubt about the invalidity
of such ordinances. AT&T looks forward to offering its cable customers a
choice of ISPs on its cable systems. But as we’ve argued all along, that
choice will best be offered as a result of market forces, not local
ordinances or government regulation.”
The fate of the open access debate lies largely in the hands of the FTC,
which is setting guidelines for the merger between AOL and Time
Warner. The Federal Communications Commission has already deferred its
ruling until after the FTC decides.
The talks have currently stalled, and the FTC announced it is delaying its
decision for another three weeks. Mark London, FTC spokesperson, declined
to comment on the announcement.
In all reality, the AOL acquisition will go through, with some provisions
mandated by the FTC making its way into the agreement. Staffers have
already announced they will file suit against AOL/TW if an agreement hasn’t
been reached, which AOL officials have to respect if they want to meet the
fall deadline they’ve been promising to anyone who will listen.
And the FTC is hard-pressed not to sign off on the merger now that the U.S.
District Court in Miami has ruled in favor of cable owners, since it
doesn’t give the regulators a legal precedent to dictate an open access
AT&T Broadband’s platform might not be best, as a majority of ISPs will not
be able to participate in the program until at least mid-2002, but it seems
to be the only option available at the time.