2 Internet-access bills are rejected

Cable TV industry prevails in Annapolis

March 22, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The cable television industry prevailed yesterday in a struggle for control of a key gateway to the Internet as two Maryland General Assembly committees rejected legislation that would have opened their high-speed lines to competitors.

The House Commerce and Government Matters Committee voted overwhelmingly to kill the bill favored by Internet service providers and consumer groups. Instead, the panel voted to set up a commission to study the issue. But last night the Senate Finance Committee voted to kill a broader Internet-access bill, raising questions about whether even the commission bill has a chance before that panel.

Advocates said they were not surprised by the defeat of the bill, which attracted highly paid lobbyists on both sides of the issue. Supporters called House committee's approval of the commission bill a partial victory.

But opponents were cheered that the threat of government intervention had been lifted.

"It is good that they recognized that this is not the time to pre-empt the open market," said Julia Johnson, spokeswoman for Net Compete Now, a coalition whose members include leading cable companies.

The legislation, sponsored by Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat, would have protected local governments from lawsuits if they moved to require cable franchise holders to sell access to their pipelines to other Internet service companies.

The Maryland legislature is just one battlefield in a nationwide struggle over who will control high-speed Internet access.

More than 1,000 small Internet service providers have sprung up around the country in recent years, but the companies and their supporters are concerned that giant cable networks could strangle Internet competition in its infancy.

In Maryland, Comcast Corp. offers such service in Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties. The so-called "broadband" service is 50 to 100 times faster than conventional dial-up access.

Cable companies are expected to play a growing role in offering Internet access as more companies upgrade their fiber-optic networks, which have far greater capacity than conventional phone lines. Opponents of the legislation argued that Comcast had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrading its network under the assumption that it would operate a proprietary system.

"All it's going to do is slow down the development of broadband, which is anti-consumer in my opinion," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican. Others argued that the Internet was growing so fast and the technology was developing so quickly that even a study commission was not needed.

Supporters said the legislation was needed to prevent cable companies from gaining monopoly control of high-speed access.

"Open access is good for consumers and good for the Maryland-based Internet service providers that create jobs and tax revenues," said Kagan. She said she was encouraged that the commission bill had been approved and sent to the House floor.

"While it certainly isn't as big a step as we might have hoped, a task force bill provides continued attention and pressure to keep the Internet open to competition," she said. "This issue is only growing in importance. It is not going away."

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