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NCTA Fights 'Access Lite'

Despite a lingering court case in California, the fight over cable "open-access" rules is yesterday's battle. The cable industry's critics have changed tactics and are pushing what could be termed "open access lite."

With the FCC apparently having shut the door on rules that would force cable companies to carry competing Internet providers on their broadband networks, cable rivals propose "antidiscrimination" rules that would bar broadband providers from blocking subscribers' access to content, regardless of the ISP.

Late last month, urged the FCC to let cable companies pick between open access and open access lite. Full open access allows ISPs to give preferential treatment to their own Web content as long as the cable company or other broadband provider also carries unaffiliated providers.

Amazon's plan calls for cable companies and other infrastructure owners to be barred from restricting consumer access to Internet content or sites. Internet providers carried by the network owner, however, could impose restrictions so long as the network is open to three or more unaffiliated Internet providers. A network that is not open to other providers would be barred from restricting consumer access to particular content.

Amazon is a member of the Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators, a group formed to protect "unfettered" high-speed access to the Internet. Last month, the group asked the FCC to "assure that consumers and other Internet users continue to enjoy the unfettered ability to reach lawful content and services" without impediment by network providers. Members include Microsoft and Disney, eBay and advocacy group Media Access Project.

Some coalition members are skeptical of Amazon's plan. Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman called it an "insufficient" attempt to ensure that broadband isn't dominated by major media companies determined to steer users only to their subsidiary sites.

Still, he applauded Amazon: "The encouraging thing is that support is growing for some type of antidiscrimination rule."

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association is asking the FCC to dismiss calls for an "open access lite." Last week, NCTA said in a letter to commissioners that antidiscrimination rules would entangle operators in regulatory disputes and encourage cable's rivals to exploit the rules and "hobble" operators.

"Cable operators offer subscribers unrestricted access to Internet content and the ability to run applications of their choice because customers demand those capabilities," wrote NCTA President Robert Sachs.

NCTA didn't address Amazon's plan specifically, but opposition to Amazon's appeal for regulation was implied, said NCTA spokesman Rob Stoddard.

Separately, last week, NCTA and several large MSOs urged the federal appeals court in San Francisco to endorse the FCC's designation of cable-modem services as an "information service," which allows the FCC to shield the business from telephone-style access obligations imposed on regional Bell companies' digital subscriber lines. The classification was appealed by consumer groups.