- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2000

The Montgomery County (Md.) Council approved an agreement yesterday that could delay consumer access to high-speed Internet access.

Council members approved the transfer of Cable TV Montgomery's cable franchise to Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp. by a 9-0 vote.

But they declined to force the cable company to open its cable network to Internet service providers (ISP) that want to market high-speed Internet access over Comcast's cable lines. Cable lines deliver Internet content up to 100 times faster than telephone lines.

Council members had considered mandating open access as a condition of the transfer, and a coalition of ISPs pushed for access to cable lines.

"It would be wrong for the government to mandate policies that have yet to prove to be necessary," Comcast spokesman David Nevins said.

Comcast is the nation's third-largest cable company with 8.2 million subscribers. Cable TV Montgomery has 209,000 subscribers.

The decision in Montgomery County comes on the heels of a landmark decision last month in Portland, Ore., that favored cable companies rather than Internet service providers.

In that case, open-access proponents were dealt a setback when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said last month the city of Portland could not force AT&T; Corp. to open its network to Internet service providers.

AT&T; sells high-speed Internet access over cable lines through ExciteAtHome, which it partially owns. ExciteAtHome has exclusive rights to AT&T;'s cable system until 2002.

Comcast also has a deal with ExciteAtHome, giving the Redwood City, Calif.-based company exclusive rights to offer Internet service over its cable network. ExciteAtHome has about 100,000 customers of its Internet access over Comcast cable lines in the Baltimore-Washington area, Mr. Nevins said.

An estimated 2 million consumers subscribe to high-speed Internet access over cable lines and 97 percent of those get service from ExciteAtHome or Roadrunner, owned by AT&T; and Time Warner Inc.

The Montgomery County Council's decision not to force Comcast to open its network to all ISPs is a blow to companies like ToadNet Inc., and Internet service provider that offers access throughout much of Maryland.

"It's all about market share. This will allow cable companies to lock up the market for some time to come," said David Troy, chief executive of Severna Park, Md.-based ToadNet, a private ISP started in 1995.

And that means consumers could have little choice among high-speed ISPs, he said.

"Ultimately it's bad for consumers. An open-access requirement would jump start the market. It's just going to take a lot longer now [for competitors to offer high-speed access over cable lines]," Mr. Troy said.

Comcast will open its lines to ISPs, Mr. Nevins said, but it's unclear when.

"There will be competition. I'm less able to commit to when that will be. We're not against competition. We're against forced competition," he said.

Consumers do have choice when it comes to cable companies. Starpower Communications Inc. markets cable service in Montgomery County.

The deal hammered out between Montgomery County and Comcast yesterday does require Comcast to make sure the company's cable network can let multiple ISPs use the network, thereby accommodating open access.

The deal also forces Comcast to acknowledge that the county has the right to mandate open access at any time.

"We did not eliminate the county's authority," said council member Marilyn Praisner. But "there's no document on the table [proposing an open access initiative] at this time."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan recommended March 30 that the county approve the transfer of the cable franchise without requiring Comcast to provide open access to ISPs.

The open-access movement has lost some momentum.

Not one of the 19 state legislatures that have introduced open access legislation has approved open access.

And last month Portland lost its authority to require open access.

In May, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia overturned a cable franchise requirement in Henrico County, Va., mandating that AT&T; must open its cable network to competitors.

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