Ma Cable?

In St. Paul and its suburbs, an unlikely coalition battles telecom giant AT&T

Picture it, says Bil MacLeslie: One single corporation owns all the information flowing into and out of your house. It controls the wires through which you get phone, TV, Internet, and any other digital data streams the cyber-economy may create; it also provides the content, drawing on its megamedia allies' stores of movies, magazines, and music, and swinging billion-dollar deals with advertisers for exclusive access to your screen. If it doesn't want you seeing certain information, well, it may just make it difficult to get to competitors' Web sites, or cause movies from other providers to download at a snail's pace. "A single gatekeeper will be able to stop any thought, any discussion, or any conversation they want," MacLeslie says.

Big-brother horror scenarios have been staple fare among conspiracy theorists since the days of, say, Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. But MacLeslie is no media critic or left-leaning political activist: As the director of research and development for Minneapolis-based Vector Internet Services Inc. (visi.com), one of the largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the state, he has business on his mind. He's part of a coalition of telecommunication firms trying to force the cable provider for St. Paul and other metro-area cities to open its network to competition.

That cable provider is MediaOne--or rather, its new corporate parent, AT&T. MacLeslie and his allies hope to make the Twin Cities the latest battleground in a nationwide fight featuring AT&T on one side and unlikely coalitions of ISPs, phone companies, activists, and politicians on the other. At stake, say all those involved, are billions of dollars' worth of business--and, perhaps more important, a prime position in the telecommunication marketplace of the 21st Century.

While the fight has so far attracted little attention locally, in some cities the issue has made front-page headlines, prompting giant corporate players to spend millions on advertising and lobbying campaigns designed to position them as embattled underdogs. In San Francisco the ISP America Online (AOL) recently sent canvassers to grocery-store parking lots to make its case against an AT&T "monopoly." AT&T quickly countered that move by hiring students to dress up as chess pieces and hold signs reading: "Don't Be a Pawn in AOL's Game."

While the lobbying tactics echo old-fashioned street theater, the conflict itself stems from recent advancements in technology. Back in the good ol' days--until about two years ago--there were only two telecommunication services most people could afford to have delivered to their homes: telephone service and cable television. If you wanted to get online, you had to do it over the phone wires, using a modem transmitting data at speeds no more than 56 kilobits per second (kbps).

But recently companies have developed equipment capable of giving regular Joes the kind of high-speed access previously available only to businesses. The phone company U S West last year unveiled a technology dubbed Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) that turns ordinary copper telephone lines into data pipes carrying signals at speeds up to ten megabits per second (mbps). (In practical terms, U S West's various DSL options feature speeds between 256 kbps--five times faster than the now-standard 56-kbps modem--and 7 mbps.) Similar technologies have been developed for cable networks: Last fall MediaOne rolled out a service that can handle data at speeds up to 1.5 mbps. Paragon Cable, the cable provider for much of the western metro area, offers a similar package in most of its service area.

While DSL modems currently offer faster connections than cable modems, the higher-capacity TV wires are the conduit of choice for the most profitable services--"broadband" packages that combine digital telephone, Internet access, and standard cable TV. And it is those services AT&T has been positioning itself to provide in the last few years. With its recent purchases of MediaOne and other cable firms, the AT&T has become both the largest long-distance phone company and the largest cable provider in the world; in the Twin Cities it serves some 325,000 cable subscribers, or roughly 60 percent of the market.

But under the federal laws governing the cable industry, AT&T can't just take over the local cable-franchise agreements MediaOne inked with the cities in which it operates: It must renegotiate its contract in each city where it wants to provide cable service. Nationwide, many local governments have simply extended the old deals, hoping that AT&T would reward them by investing in network upgrades. But some municipalities--notably Portland, Oregon and Broward County, Florida--demanded that as part of a new contract, AT&T allow competitors access to its cable network, much the way phone companies must share their wires. In the resulting lawsuits, federal courts have twice ruled against AT&T; the company is appealing the decisions, and the Portland case is expected to find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Locally, MacLeslie and what he calls his "guerrilla" coalition have been lobbying municipalities to follow in Portland's footsteps. Members of the group include phone giant U S West and Minnesota ISPs such as Onvoy.com, Gofast.net, and Wavefront.com. "It's kind of like getting in bed with a tiger," MacLeslie says of the alliance, noting that many of its members compete with each other and with U S West, which itself has long operated as a monopoly.

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