Thursday, January 27, 2000

State and local officials from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are stepping into the national debate over broadband service, the high-speed Internet access via cable-television lines that Web surfers crave.

Montgomery County, Md., gets involved today. The County Council is holding a public meeting to help decide whether cable companies should be forced to sell competitors access to their networks so they can market broadband service.

Action by the council could make Montgomery County the first community in Maryland to require open access.

Another forum will be the Maryland General Assembly, where Delegate Cheryl C. Kagan, Rockville Democrat, plans to introduce a bill that would require cable companies to open their networks to Internet-service providers. A state law would end the need for county-by-county examination of franchise agreements.

In addition, the open-access issue is expected to surface this year Arlington, Va., where the cable franchise will change hands.

“This year will be 1999 on steroids,” said Richard Bond, co-director of the D.C.-based Internet lobbying group Opennet Coalition, referring to earlier efforts on behalf of open access.

Baltimore, the District and Howard County, Md., also will debate open access as a wave of telecommunications mergers and acquisitions lets local officials reexamine franchise agreements with cable companies.

Broadband is the future of the Internet. Cable connections transfer data at speeds at least 100 times faster than dial-up modems, which rely on telephone lines.

Only 900,000 U.S. homes have Internet access through cable lines, according to Baltimore investment-banking firm Legg Mason. Massachusetts-based technology group Forrester Research predicts one in four homes with on-line access will have Internet access through cable within four years.

But cable lines are privately owned, and there’s no policy forcing companies like Comcast Corp. and AT&T Corp., the nation’s biggest cable company with 20 million customers, to let Internet-service providers use cable networks.

Montgomery County officials are preparing to debate open access because Comcast, the third-largest cable company with 8.2 million subscribers, plans to take over Cable TV Montgomery and provide cable service to the county’s 315,000 subscribers.

Transfer of the cable-franchise contract from Prime Cable to Comcast will start an open-access debate in Arlington.

Comcast also is buying franchise agreements in Howard County from Mid-Atlantic Cable of Western Maryland, in Baltimore from Tele-Communications Inc. and in the District from TCI, which will lead to open-access debates in those communities.

Internet companies are lobbying the Montgomery County Council to approve the transfer of its franchise agreement only if Comcast opens its cable network to service providers anxious to market broadband service.

Both Comcast and competitor Starpower Communications Inc. two companies selling cable service to Montgomery County residents oppose government intervention through an open-access mandate.

The Montgomery County Council plans to hold an informational meeting at 2 p.m. today on open access. A decision on the matter is months away.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan plans to hold a public hearing on open access the week of Feb. 14, and he could make a recommendation to the County Council on open access within 10 days of the hearing.

The County Council may set an open-access policy by April.

“I still have a few questions. I can see good points on both sides of the issue,” said Montgomery County Council member Marilyn Praisner, who organized today’s informational session for the council and local officials statewide.

Montgomery County is among the high-profile broadband battlegrounds in the nation this year in part because it’s home to three members of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that so far has decided not to regulate cable companies by forcing them to open their networks to Internet-service providers.

Opennet members are hoping Montgomery County passes an open-access policy so it maintains its momentum in the push to force cable companies to sell cable access to Internet service providers.

Local officials in 14 communities where cable service is regulated, including Fairfax, have decided to require open access as part of negotiations on cable franchises.

Comcast was subject to a decision by local officials in Broward County, Fla., forcing open access, and the company appealed the county’s decision in federal court, Comcast Vice President Joe Waz said.

Despite their defeats, cable companies say few communities have embraced open access and Opennet’s momentum has stalled.

“I think [the open-access movement] is starting to peter out,” AT&T spokesman Chris Doherty said.

The movement may have lost steam with America Online Inc.’s purchase of Time Warner Inc. AOL was a founding member of Opennet, but the new AOL Time Warner opposes a federal open-access policy. AOL inherited 13 million Time Warner Cable customers when it bought the media company.

The movement may also have lost steam when AT&T said in a letter to federal regulators in December it intends to sell competitors access to its cable lines, though not until 2002.

But Opennet expects to wage open-access fights in up to 13 more communities this year. In addition, 16 state legislatures could introduce open-access legislation in 2000, Opennet predicts.

The Fairfax City Council voted 4-2 Sept. 28 to demand that Cox Communications let all service providers use its cable lines. Little has happened in Fairfax since the vote because service providers seem to be waiting to see what happens with the landmark open-access case in Portland, Ore., Fairfax City Council member Scott Silverthorne said.

AT&T appealed a decision upholding a judge’s ruling that the Portland City Council could force AT&T to open its cable network. Now, the case is in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Opennet expects even more communities to embrace open-access policies if the court upholds Portland’s decision.

“That would be huge,” Opennet co-director Greg Simon said. “A lot of people have said if Portland wins, they want AT&T to have to provide open access in their home town, too.”

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