Open Access Battle Heating Up

The issue of open access to cable networks for Internet access is continuing to heat up nationwide with a key vote expected later Monday in San Francisco and a move to force a vote on the issue in Denver.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is expected to vote later Monday on whether AT&T Corp. should be forced to open its cable TV infrastructure to competing Internet providers who want to provide high-speed access.

The issue has become a hot topic among local governments nationwide as municipalities are required to approve the transfer of Tele-Communications Inc. franchises to AT&T. AT&T last year bought TCI for $48 billion and must receive local approval to take possession of TCI’s 800 franchises across the country.

While San Francisco officials are expected to approve the transfer, they could require AT&T to share its cable lines to competitors, such as AOL, who are seeking to offer their own high-speed services.

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 slew of local governments to try and impose the same restrictions.

AT&T has opposed open access, saying it forces them to provide infrastructure to competitors at an artificially low cost.

AT&T Chairman C. Michael Armstrong has said he is confident the Portland court ruling will be overturned on appeal.

San Francisco officials will also consider a proposal that would establish open access as a city policy but would not force AT&T to open its infrastructure immediately. Rather, the board would take another look at the issue and make a final decision in November.

Open access proponents are calling for AT&T to immediately open its lines. They say the fast-moving nature of the Internet requires government officials to act quickly or consumers will be shut out of high-speed access opportunities.

Separately, 4,000 signatures have been gathered from Denver residents on a petition to force a vote on the open-access issue in November.

The OpenNET Coalition of Internet providers said it has more than twice the number of signatures needed to secure a slot on the ballot. The campaign would require voter approval to amend the 15-year cable franchise between Denver and AT&T Broadband and Internet Services.

“Customers will benefit from full and open access,” said Douglas Hanson, chairman and chief executive officer of Denver ISP RMI.NET Inc., a coalition member.

“We think that more choice at less cost is what customers want and deserve. Under the agreement between AT&T and the City and County of Denver, consumer choice would be limited and costs would be higher,” he said.

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