Ma Cable?

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

But there, MacLeslie adds, is the difference: U S West was a monopoly, but the Telecommunication Act of 1996 forced it and other local phone companies to open their wires and their switching stations to competitors; that's why, shortly after U S West rolled out DSL service in the Twin Cities, other companies began offering similar packages. Cable companies, on the other hand, are not regulated by the Act and can keep their networks closed. In cities where it already offers broadband access, AT&T is the only choice for consumers who want cable television and Internet access via cable.

MacLeslie says separate regulations for phone companies and cable providers may have made sense in the Eighties, when politicians were breaking up "Ma Bell" by creating long-distance provider AT&T as well as U S West and other "Baby Bells." But at a time when phone, cable, and Internet companies all strive to provide similar products, MacLeslie says, "it's like the FCC is looking at the situation through antique glasses."

Scott Brener, U S West's Minnesota director for public policy, concurs: "It sounds kind of funny coming from us," he says. "But as it stands, the laws are fundamentally discriminatory and give AT&T an unfair advantage in the marketplace."

Like MacLeslie, Brener has a penchant for Big Brother imagery: AT&T's Road Runner ISP service, he notes, is a joint effort with Time Warner, Microsoft, and Compaq--high-tech heavyweights that may use the service to promote their own products while discouraging competitors. "There's a screen between the Internet and the customer," Brener charges. "That screen is Road Runner."

But Charles Ward, AT&T's vice president for governmental affairs, balks at the critics' freedom-of-information rhetoric: "It's like they should have 'The Star-Spangled Banner' playing in the background," he scoffs. In reality, Ward argues, AT&T is the underdog battling powerful U S West: For years the two companies have been locked in a dispute over how much AT&T should pay to provide local telephone service using U S West's wires. Ward claims that buying MediaOne was the only way for AT&T to break into the local market. "It's U S West that's exhibiting monopolistic behavior," he concludes. "Our goal is to make best use of our assets in order to give customers another choice." One way to do that, he argues, is to sink more than $200 million into upgrading cable networks in Minnesota alone--an investment the company needs time, and protection from competitors, to recover.

Tom Creighton, a telecommunication attorney representing most of the suburban communities currently serviced by MediaOne, doesn't care who's the bigger bully--it's hard enough, he notes, to keep track of who's who. "It's kind of like in the Appalachians where everybody marries their cousins," he laughs, pointing out that U S West sold MediaOne several years ago and now finds itself in direct competition with its former subsidiary.

Creighton says he is advising his client to follow the route chosen by San Francisco: Rather than starting another costly lawsuit against AT&T, he recommends that they agree to a closed network, then wait out a Supreme Court decision in the Portland case. "It's not the role of city governments to foster competition," Creighton says. "Nobody's going to die on the operating table if they don't get high-speed Internet access. The companies can fight this one out amongst themselves."

But the open-access proponents haven't given up on turning the Twin Cities into another Portland. Between now and November 15, the deadline for the new cable agreements, they plan on making their case to members of local franchise commissions in each suburb served by MediaOne--and, probably, to members of the St. Paul City Council, who govern the cable franchise in that city. (Holly Hansen, St Paul's cable officer says the city has just started reviewing AT&T's proposal.) And if U S West's Brener has his way, those discussions will center not on his and other companies' desire to make more money, but on philosophical considerations: "In future generations, access to data and information will become a basic necessity," he argues. "It will decide who makes it from a business perspective. It may well determine social standing. Even today, open access to data and information is basically becoming as important to society as the availability of bread and water."

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