ISPs, FCC Spar on Cable Access

The nation's top court may rule on the broadband issue.

Small businesses looking for more broadband choices are unlikely to get help from the Bush administration, which is taking a hands-off approach to cable regulation.

Despite a federal appeals court ruling overturning their decision, federal regulators are continuing to push their edict that cable companies, unlike telephone companies, do not have to give rival ISPs access to their lines at regulated rates. Administration officials last week asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the matter.

The case pits the Federal Communications Commission against ISPs that say requiring cable operators to share their lines—much the way telecommunications companies are required to lease lines to competitors at set rates—would result in increased build-out of cable networks and more choices for consumers.

SMBs (small and midsize businesses) and home offices typically have two choices for broadband: cable and DSL. But while DSL offers myriad choices among ISPs, with cable there is typically just one option—the cable provider.

If the government supported access to the cable network by independent ISPs, cable companies would have an incentive to build their networks into downtown business districts, said Mike Jackman, executive director of the California ISP Association, in Sacramento.

"If you plan on being in business in five years, you might want to have the option of having cable," Jackman said.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, meanwhile, lauded the administration for backing the FCC and asking for a Supreme Court review, arguing that if the appeals courts decision isnt reversed, regulatory burdens imposed on traditional telephone companies will have to be applied to cable companies as well.

/zimages/3/28571.gifAt a recent conference, Powell said that its time to throw out old regulations that categorize companies based on the various types of telecommunications pipes. Click here to read the story.

"This is about ensuring that high-speed Internet connections arent treated like what theyre not: telephones," Powell said. "A successful appeal of this case would ultimately mean lower prices and better service for American consumers."

Independent ISPs disagree.

"If [Powell] could name me an instance where you had more competitors and prices rose, I would be very interested," Jackman said. "Theres no technological reason why customers who choose cable shouldnt have a selection among hundreds of ISPs."

Although independent ISPs overall do not have regulated access to cable networks, they consider the issue imperative in the larger matter of broadband competition.

"Were talking about a philosophical battle here," Jackman said. "Do we want true competition, or are we going to give the market to two or three companies?"

ISPs are also concerned that the Supreme Courts review of the case could affect other areas of the broadband service industry. Anticipating that Congress will review the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and that it will face intense lobbying pressure from incumbent phone companies, ISP associations across the country have formed the National Internet Alliance, which plans to debut officially next week.

/zimages/3/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms Government Center at for the latest news, views and analysis of technologys impact on government and politics.