State Orders Qwest: Ease Up On AT&T

Washington state regulators last week ordered Qwest Communications International Inc. to assist local-telephony efforts by AT&T Broadband, the cable operator that's usually the target of open-access solicitors.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission's 10-page decision came as Colorado-based Qwest was considering whether to ask regulators in its 14-state territory to open AT&T Broadband's high-speed platform to competing Internet-service providers.

"I guess turnabout is fair play," said Paul Kagan Associates telecom analyst John Mansell.

The battle in Washington is different than a cable-access dispute, Mansell noted. Except when under a legislative or court order, AT&T Broadband was never under any obligation to unbundle its network — and has successfully warded off such local efforts so far.

But the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires Qwest — parent company of the former U S West — to open up its telephony plant to competitors if it wants to get into the lucrative long-distance business.

"The open-access debate is just that: a debate," Mansell said. "Federal telecommunications law suggests that AT&T must be allowed on Qwest's network."

The WUTC said Qwest must furnish AT&T with access to inside wiring in apartment complexes where the MSO wants to offer local phone service. The order requires Qwest to "promptly provide access to AT&T in any technically feasible manner requested by AT&T."

The two sides have 30 days to negotiate over how much AT&T must pay Qwest for the connections. Otherwise, WUTC sources said, the agency might set the price.

Both sides declared victory. Tom Pelto, AT&T's vice president for law and government affairs, said the WUTC ruling should put a stop to Qwest's attempts to keep competitors out of the market. AT&T claims Qwest has ripped out wires installed by AT&T at apartment complexes in the Olympia area, locked boxes that contain wiring, refused to negotiate access terms with AT&T and called the police when AT&T attempted to install its own wiring.

"They made it awfully difficult," Pelto said.

Qwest senior vice president Steve Davis said the telco was simply trying to keep AT&T off its network before it signs an interconnection deal.

"All I want is a deal," Davis said. "There must be 20 competitors in that market. You can't have them all running around and connecting themselves to your network.

"It's all right if you want to park in my garage, but you should ask me first," he added.

Davis also said AT&T has steadfastly refused to discuss allowing Qwest to tap cable-network access to high-speed Internet homes in areas where digital subscriber line service is not available.

"If we had done to them what they did to us, they would have had us thrown in jail," he said.

Nevertheless, Davis said both sides were "close" to a deal, and should have an agreement in place before the WUTC 30-day deadline.