Access Forum Breaks Out at D.C. Hearing

WASHINGTON -The District of Columbia last Monday became the latest venue in the debate over open access.

A District Council hearing on the proposed transfer of the city's cable franchise from AT&T Broadband to Comcast Corp. provided a forum in which residents and corporate interests could press their views on access and the council could take a wait-and-see approach.

Officials at the District's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications had backed the transfer, subject to some requirements. Comcast would need to provide a detailed plan for improving customer service, comply with local employment policies and undergo a prompt upgrade.

Steven Birch, president of Comcast's Mid-Atlantic division, vowed to fulfill all of those conditions.

"We want Washington, D.C.'s cable system to be a showcase cable system," he said.

Birch also assured the council that Comcast would quickly build an institutional network for the District's government and other public institutions.

Though AT&T had promised to build an institutional network during past franchise renewals, it has never been fully implemented. That's one reason AT&T is negotiating a franchise-violation settlement of up to $5 million.

On the access front, council member Vincent Orange questioned whether or not Comcast could comply with a council mandate to open its high-speed-data network to unafilliated Internet-service providers.

"The most appropriate course would be to await the FCC's decision," said Jeffrey Smith, a Comcast lawyer, referring to the Federal Communications Commission's recent note of inquiry into the open access issue.

Smith also questioned the legality of such a mandate by local authorities, citing recent court decisions in Oregon, Florida and Virginia that rejected localities' attempts to impose open access.

Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, seemed to agree with Comcast's assessment of the situation.

"The consumer would be a loser in burdening the transfer with the open-access issue," she said.

Nonetheless, a parade of speakers backed an access requirement.

Claudia McKoin, representing Verizon Communications, noted that federal law requires the regional Bell operating companies to furnish competitors with access to their telephony systems. In 1996, the council opted to open the local telephone market to competition against Verizon predecessor Bell Atlantic Corp.

"We ask you today to make the same policy decision, and declare that the cable provider should not have monopoly control over the Internet services provided through cable broadband," McKoin said. "We ask for a level playing field."

Jarvis and Orange repeatedly expressed doubts about their authority in terms of requiring open access.

"The council should focus on the transfer," Smith said. "Allow the FCC to proceed with its inquiry. We are opposed to the concept of [local franchise authorities] requiring open access."

The council could vote on the transfer in the next few months.