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Activists Want Cable Lines Opened to ISPs

Groups ask FCC to force operators to make their high-speed networks available to all comers.

July 29, 1999|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Consumers Union and three other groups today will ask the Federal Communications Commission to reverse its stance and force cable companies to open up their high-speed networks to all Internet service providers.

In a six-page letter addressed to FCC Chairman William E. Kennard, Consumers Union--along with Media Access Project, the Center for Media Education and the Consumer Federation of America--said the FCC risks placing "the future of the Internet in jeopardy" if it does not force cable operators to open their network to all comers, as telephone companies are required to do under federal law.

The consumer organizations join dozens of lawmakers and some of the nation's biggest high-tech firms in an intensifying battle over providing high-speed Internet access--a battle that will affect the growth of electronic commerce and adoption of new information technologies, experts say.

While a number of emerging technologies promise to provide high-speed access to the Internet, including services provided by telephone companies and even satellite firms, cable operators--who already provide two-thirds of U.S. households with video--could use their high-speed networks in a discriminatory fashion, the organizations say.

The groups suggest in their letter that if cable companies are allowed to control the flow of Internet content over their networks, they may be able to slow or otherwise restrict users' access to material provided by their competitors, including such rival service providers as America Online.

The consumer groups say they fear that cable companies will reserve the highest transmission speeds for their own proprietary content, while relegating competitors' material to less-efficient pathways.

"The impact of potentially discriminatory policies on competitive content providers would have a devastating impact on the capacity of the Internet to promote diversity," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, head of the Washington-based watchdog group Media Access Project.

The letter to the FCC comes three days after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors decided not to force AT&T Corp., which is building the nation's largest high-speed cable network, to open that network to competing Internet service providers, or ISPs. AT&T has rebuffed efforts by AOL and the nation's more than 4,000 ISPs to gain wholesale access to its high-speed cable network. AT&T and other cable operators say they need the exclusive right to sell Internet service to their customers in order to justify their heavy expenditures in making their networks data-ready.

As the burgeoning Internet becomes the conduit for a greater share of the world's electronic commerce and communications traffic, the demand for speed on the worldwide computer network has grown.

Cable modems theoretically can transmit data up to 1,000 times faster than regular analog modems, although, in practice, the speed increase is only about 10 to 100 times greater due to computer software and hardware limitations.

Telephone companies are rolling out a competing high-speed technology called digital subscriber line service, or DSL, that provides high-speed Internet access comparable to cable modems. So far, fewer than 250,000 Americans have such access, compared with more than 750,000 with cable modems.

The consumer groups contend in their letter that cable operators are trying to solidify their high-speed lead by manipulating their networks to discriminate among favored and out-of-favor content providers.

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