SNAP CALL

City Hall makes a quick pick in an ugly battle over Internet and phone service. Prepare to pay the price.

AT&T is already offering high-speed Internet in St. Ann and other communities without open-access laws. Charter Communications has also been upgrading its system outside St. Louis and has begun offering high-speed Internet.

The feds say open access isn't an issue for local governments. Time and again, Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard, who coined the term "no-opoly," has said the high-speed-Internet market is too new and too unpredictable for government to step in on the open-access question.

In July, San Francisco reserved its right to impose open access pending a study due for completion in December. In the meantime, AT&T is upgrading its Bay Area cable system. In King County, Wash., home to Microsoft and hundreds of dot-com companies, the County Council in February appointed a panel of experts to study open access while allowing AT&T to do as it pleased. The eight-member panel, which released its report in October, was evenly split: Four members favored a hands-off approach. The other four said the county should negotiate with AT&T to ensure that the company won't monopolize the Internet.

Aldermanic President Francis Slay Jr. introduced the bill that would require AT&T to open its cable lines to competitors offering Internet access. "We're one of the leaders in the country on this," he says.
Jennifer Silverberg
Aldermanic President Francis Slay Jr. introduced the bill that would require AT&T to open its cable lines to competitors offering Internet access. "We're one of the leaders in the country on this," he says.
Sheri Keller, executive director of Missouri 
Council for the Blind, thinks competition among Internet service providers would address the needs of the blind better than an AT&T monopoly.
Jennifer Silverberg
Sheri Keller, executive director of Missouri Council for the Blind, thinks competition among Internet service providers would address the needs of the blind better than an AT&T monopoly.

So why is St. Louis daring to tread where most others fear, in the process inviting a lawsuit while risking a delay in getting a state-of-the-art communications system available to every resident?

Slay says it's important for the city to stand up to AT&T. Open access will give the city leverage when it negotiates a cable franchise up for renewal next spring, he says. If AT&T won't give the city what it wants, the city could find another company that will. "We can't let them intimidate us," Slay says. "This is a relatively good-sized market for them. My view is they will invest."

Although the city is largely out on a limb now, Slay predicts everyone will eventually follow St. Louis. As much as he's pushed it, Slay thinks open access is an issue best handled by the federal government. By making a stand, the city is putting heat on the FCC to mandate open access from sea to shining sea, Slay says. "We're one of the leaders in the country on this," he says. "If all the cities would follow our lead, AT&T couldn't make the threats it's making now. That's what this is all about. The whole nation -- the federal government and everybody -- will come around and support the position of the city of St. Louis."

But weeks after Schmid voted for the open-access bill, he says he doesn't know what effect the board's decision will have on competition in the telecommunications industry or the city's cable franchise. He expected a closer vote. "To tell the truth, I think there was some backlash from what was viewed as heavy-handed tactics on the part of AT&T," he says.

And AT&T shows no signs of giving up, despite the city's action.

Even as Harmon signed the bill, the company, with the help of Charter Communications, the dominant cable provider in St. Louis County, organized a referendum drive aimed at putting the question back before the Board of Aldermen. On Tuesday, the companies gave the city Board of Election Commissioners more than 12,000 signatures, enough to put a hold on the new law. If they gather a total of 15,000 signatures by mid-January, the aldermen must reconsider the bill. If they don't reverse their position, we all get to vote on this.

Despite all the debate and money, the open-access issue is somewhat hypothetical, because the high-speed Internet system, with an estimated 1 million users nationwide, barely exists. High-speed transmission through phone lines has been available to businesses for several years, but the service can cost hundreds of dollars per month, putting it out of the reach of regular folks.

In cyberspace, transmission speeds are based on bandwidth, or the capacity of a line to carry signals. For most of its journey, a signal sent by computer travels on high-capacity broadband lines. Only when it gets to your house does the signal hit narrowband lines, slowing everything down. It's not a problem for simple things like e-mail. But downloading graphics and audio files is agonizingly slow. And you can't use the phone while you do it, because narrowband lines, unlike broadband ones, can't handle phone and computer signals at the same time.

Think of high-speed Internet as heroin. Once you've tried it, it's hard to go back to Tylenol. Goodbye, VCR. With broadband, you can download feature-length movies through high-speed lines in less time than it takes to make the popcorn. Can't make it to class today? No problem. You can see the lecture and even ask questions with your computer. Forget about the telephone. High-speed Internet could let you see the person on the other end of the line, finally bringing home the videoconferences foreshadowed on Star Trek 30 years ago. One can only imagine what this would do for the cybersex industry: I can see what she's doing, and she can see me!

Of course, none of this can exist without customers, and customers can't exist without the means to put high-speed transmission into homes at a cost low enough that rocket-ship-powerful computers become as ubiquitous as microwave ovens. And the means ain't cheap: AT&T says it will cost $100 billion to upgrade its system so the cable that now feeds your TV can feed your computer and telephone as well. In St. Louis alone, AT&T says, the upgrade will cost $19 million

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