Telco Told: Lease Cable

Connecticut regulators have issued a draft order that could compel telco SNET to provide access to its former cable plant to Gemini Networks, a competitive wholesale broadband-access provider.

In a preliminary decision issued Nov. 3, the state Department of Public Utility Control found that Gemini's lack of access to the SNET network represents a barrier to entry.

SBC Communications Inc. unit SNET has consistently challenged the DPUC's authority to rule on the access dispute with Gemini.

The company would have a lot to say in its next filing with the DPUC, due Dec. 10, said SNET spokeswoman Beverly Levy.

"We were more than willing to do business with Gemini. We offered to sell them the remaining pieces of our former cable-TV network, and they never gave us the courtesy of a response to our offer.

"Instead of paying fair market value for our assets, they've chosen to game the regulatory process while claiming that they want to offer competition in cable TV and telephone — services that they don't even offer," Levy said.

SNET will argue this decision in whichever venue is necessary, including the courts, she added.

Gemini petitioned the Department of Public Utility Control earlier this year for the ruling, arguing the telco's cable plant meets the definition of network elements that must be unbundled and rented to competitors.

Gemini wants access to the approximately 3,000 miles of hybrid fiber-coaxial plant that SNET installed prior to its merger with SBC, in order to deliver cable services throughout the state. To do so, SNET obtained an 11-year statewide cable franchise in 1996.

SNET offered video under the brand Personal Vision until 2001. At that time, it petitioned the state for relief of its cable service agreement, arguing the operation was "commercially impracticable."

But when SNET originally submitted its plans to the state in 1994, it stated an intent to ultimately deliver voice, video and data. Gemini argued that since that was the plan, the plant was prepared to provide telecommunications services.

SNET argued that network unbundling falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission, not the DPUC. Even if the state is allowed to intervene in the dispute, the cable plant is not part of the telephony network, the company argued.

SNET never installed the operational support system necessary to deliver telecommunications services, the company added.

DPUC commissioners sided with Gemini, ruling that the former cable plant must be offered to Gemini on an element-by-element basis. The DPUC was supported in its ruling by the state Attorney General's office and the state Consumer Counsel.

Rich Rowlenson, vice president and general counsel for Hartford-based Gemini, said company officials are very pleased regulators granted the petition. "It gives hope for an increase in competition," he said.

Privately held Gemini currently sells wholesale telecommunications services to a small number of customers in Hartford. Gemini would like to connect its Hartford plant with the SNET infrastructure, he said.

In order to become a cable company itself, Gemini would have to petition the state, Rowlenson said. Gemini has not applied for cable authorization, he said.

A final vote on the issue is currently scheduled for Dec. 17.