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Access Issue Heard Again In San Francisco

Open access resurfaced in San Francisco with a first-of-its-kind ordinance requiring cable operators to unbundle their high-speed networks.

If approved, the measure-introduced last week before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors-would give operators 18 months to provide non- discriminatory open access to unaffiliated area Internet-service providers.

The ordinance is aimed at AT & T Broadband, the city's incumbent operator, as well as RCN Corp., the Princeton, N.J.-based competitive local-exchange carrier and cable operator targeting the local market.

"Consumers using cable systems to access the Internet deserve choice," said board president Tom Ammiano, author of the open-access ordinance and a longtime critic of cable. "I'm pleased that we've been able to assemble a coalition of consumer groups,

San Francisco-based Internet-service providers and nonprofits in support of this legislation."

AT & T Broadband immediately announced plans to oppose Ammiano's proposal, which it denounced as a scheme authored by the state's local telephone industry. "We think this is a ploy by Pacific Bell to slow cable so that they can catch up in the broadband arena," AT & T Broadband spokeswoman Jane Young said.

Young noted that SBC Communications Inc.'s PacBell reported 100,000 California subscribers for its high-speed digital-subscriber-line service at the end of 1999, compared with 3,000 at the end of 1998, indicating that cable's entry into the market has spurred competition.

"Which means that regulation is not in the best interest of the consumer," she added. "There's no need for it."

Moreover, Young said, AT & T Broadband is already committed to opening its high-speed platform to outside ISPs after it is no longer bound by an exclusive agreement with Excite@Home Corp.

The proposed ordinance also requires that consumers who access outside ISPs be provided with single-click connections-which, in AT & T Broadband's case, would mean bypassing the Excite@Home start page.

It also guarantees ISPs the right to deliver video streaming, and it encourages operators and outside ISPs to offer the disabled improved Internet access.

The board's Public Utilities Committee is expected to hold hearings on the proposal sometime next month.

Banding together last week behind Ammiano's proposal were the San Francisco chapter of the Association of Internet Professionals; The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer-advocacy group; and Media Alliance.

"AT & T should not have a virtual monopoly over access to the Internet," Media Alliance executive director Andrea Buffa said. "The Internet is one of the most democratic and participatory forms of media that we have right now, and we need to keep it that way."

Ammiano unveiled his proposal after the city's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services issued a report supporting open access. But he said he did not agree with the report's recommendation that the city not require open access until January 2003.

"I didn't find that palatable," he added. "There was no way you could have read the recommendation and not concluded that it supported open access."

Hands Off the Internet-a coalition of Internet users, trade groups and industry-related companies-issued a statement blasting any regulation of the Internet.

"Consider the array of variables that have to go into any deal for cable access," coalition executive director Peter Arnold said. "You have to take into account numbers of subscribers, average usage per week and whether this usage is during peak or nonpeak times. You also have to consider the likelihood that ISPs and cable companies will conclude creative financing deals-cross-marketing arrangements and revenue sharing, for example.

"With the industry operating on Internet time, it is simply laughable to suggest that these regulations would not bog down current progress toward offering consumers an array of online providers."

After refusing to consider the access issue in December, as expected, Ammiano said board members will not be able to "wimp out" this time.

"Each member of the board is up for re-election this November," he added. "And open access is a very popular issue in San Francisco right now."