The lines are drawn in battle over cable

Access: ISPs want the high-speed TV pipelines opened up, but cable companies say the technology won't accommodate them all.

March 06, 2000|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,Sun Staff

A fight brewing on the back burners of cyberspace has erupted into a nationwide brawl over who will provide high-speed Internet access to millions of homes over cable television lines.

In one corner are cable TV companies, who own the lines and transmit what they choose. Across the ring is a band of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), big telephone companies and consumer groups who want access to cable's high-speed pipelines into the nation's residential areas.

In between is nasty talk about monopolies and unfair competition.

"This a very complicated subject," said Jaye Gamble, regional vice president for the Washington metropolitan area at Comcast Cable Communications. "There are a lot of technical issues, a lot of policy issues ... and quite frankly, quite a lot of fiction."

Everyone agrees there is fiction, but not on which part is fiction.

The Maryland General Assembly has entered the fray with the introduction of a bill designed to protect local governments from lawsuits if they decide to require cable franchises to open their pipelines.

As things stand, most customers connect to the Internet with a modem over regular telephone lines, and it's slow. However, a small but growing number of users have "broadband" access that's 50 to 100 times faster than dial-up. With some minor exceptions, broadband service is available only through a cable company or through a telephone company's Digital Subscriber Line (DSL).

Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties have cable Internet service, while DSL is available to many homes throughout the metropolitan area.

With regular telephone lines and DSL, customers can use any ISP they want, paying a line charge to the phone company and a separate fee to a service provider such as America Online, EarthLink or Toad.Net. Cable Internet subscribers pay a flat fee and get direct access to only one ISP, which is chosen by the cable company. Comcast, for example, uses the Excite@Home network.

Other ISPs don't have direct access to cable customers, although AOL -- with the largest subscriber base, 21 million -- offers reduced rates to customers who access the service through another Internet provider.

Proponents of open access to cable lines -- including a national group called openNET Coalition that comprises 1,000 ISPs and a local organization known as the Maryland Open Access Coalition (MOAC) -- argue that an expanding cable monopoly on broadband access could strangle the booming Internet economy.

They want the right to service their customers through cable lines by paying the cable companies a reasonable fee.

The local ISPs argue that if the state waits, cable Internet customers will be locked into the cable company's service provider and won't want to change when other ISPs get access to the cable pipeline. They say many local ISPs would die, while others would be gobbled up by larger companies.

"Technology is new and changing every day," says Democratic Del. Cheryl C. Kagan of Montgomery County, sponsor of the cable legislation (HB 571). "These issues didn't exist last year. And next year may be too late."

Meanwhile, telephone companies are required by federal law to share their lines. "We think cable companies should be treated like public utilities," said MOAC spokesman David Troy, who owns Toad.Net in Severna Park. That way, he said, consumers would have more choices and lower Internet service fees.

Cable executives argue that their service is not like the telephone. Telephone companies built their networks under state regulation, with a guaranteed rate of return. Cable companies, they say, created their networks with private funds and assumed all the risks. Therefore, they should get the reward.

And as for a monopoly?

"What monopoly?" asked Wes Heppler, a lawyer who lobbies for the local cable industry and AT&T. "The underlying premise of the legislation is completely inaccurate."

Of the 37 million homes online nationwide, only 1.4 million have cable Internet access, industry executives said at a hearing on the bill in Annapolis last week.

Moreover, "The industry can't comply with this legislation because the technology isn't there," said Wayne O'Dell, president of the Cable Telecommunications Association of Maryland, Delaware & District of Columbia.

He said cable systems aren't designed to allow outside access.

The Federal Communications Commission has taken a hands-off approach so far, and Chairman William E. Kennard has expressed reservations about local governments' attempts to force open access.

So far, a handful of communities have taken on the issue. Portland, Ore., Broward County, Fla., and Henrico County, Va., have required open access and been sued.

AT&T, which is involved in all three cases, says local government has no right to regulate cable this way because the laws governing cable are different from those governing phone companies.

Cable operators worry that if each of the 30,000 jurisdictions that regulate cable locally decide to adopt open-access rules, there would be chaos.

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