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

Curious words for a company that has fought to keep its lines closed to long-distance carriers and lobbied the FCC to block the TCI-AT&T merger that now threatens its business. AT&T isn't alone in laughing at such sentiments.

As a card-carrying ACLU member and former member of the state Public Service Commission, Alberta Slavin never dreamed she'd find herself on the side of AT&T, which disconnected her phone in the early 1970s when she dared buy a phone instead of leasing one from Ma Bell. Now head of a consumer-advocacy group called the Utility Consumers Council of Missouri, Slavin says the open-access campaign is a disguised attempt by Southwestern Bell to maintain monopolies on residential phone service and high-speed Internet service by way of DSL. "Am I for open access?" she says. "Absolutely. But not when it's a phony issue to keep competition out of an area."

According to a memo from the city's communications division, Southwestern Bell wrote the open-access bill, an assertion hotly denied by Aldermanic President Slay. Yes, lawyers for Southwestern Bell reviewed the draft bill and suggested language, but that's a far cry from actually writing the legislation, he says. "The bill looks nothing like what they gave us," Slay says. "That bill was drafted by our attorney."

Mayor Clarence Harmon, an early supporter of open access, says past cable scandals were one reason he delayed signing the open-access bill for two weeks. "I was initially concerned it was dealt with so quickly by the Board of Aldermen," he says. "I became convinced it wouldn't stifle competition."
Jennifer Silverberg
Mayor Clarence Harmon, an early supporter of open access, says past cable scandals were one reason he delayed signing the open-access bill for two weeks. "I was initially concerned it was dealt with so quickly by the Board of Aldermen," he says. "I became convinced it wouldn't stifle competition."

Communications director Stone won't say how he came to know who wrote the bill. "I'd really rather not answer that," Stone says. "I know what the president (Slay) has said. I'm not going to put myself in conflict with him." Deb Seidel of AT&T says Southwestern Bell wrote the bill. "Amazingly, he (Slay) admitted to us at first that it was true, and then I think he realized what that position made him look like," she says. "I think that's why he backed off on it. If he really wants to get technical about it, they did amend it, so it's no longer the bill that Southwestern Bell wrote because it's been amended. Essentially, they did write the bill."

The communication division's evaluation of the law mirrors AT&T's position. Titled "The Hidden Effects of Bill 190," the memo says open access "practically guarantees that the city will never get a cable system upgrade" because "AT&T does not spend capital dollars for upgrades in cities with open access requirements." The memo also questions the full-speed-ahead nature of the open-access bill, which was introduced as an emergency measure. Characterizing the bill as "a mythical ordinance that would only benefit a few hundred potential subscribers to a cable service that doesn't exist," the memo starkly lays out the option: Should the city risk a lawsuit from AT&T over open access, or should it wait for pending court decisions and save "hundreds of thousands of dollars on a lawsuit we don't need and might find hard to defend with this bill?"

Slay says he discounted the memo as soon as he saw it. Starting with the claim that Southwestern Bell wrote the bill, the memo is riddled with inaccuracies, Slay says. "I gave it absolutely no credibility at all," he says. "To say we're not going to get a cable upgrade is basically being persuaded by AT&T's threats. They're going to make plenty of money if we pass this bill or we don't pass this bill. The problem is, it's going to mess up their business plans."

Stone would have preferred that the city negotiate rather than demand. "This was our early position, and we don't talk about our early position anymore, but we would much rather have dealt with this in the franchise renewal and not mandated it through an ordinance," Stone says. "It was our opinion that by raising the open-access issue, we were seriously jeopardizing the franchise renewal, as AT&T has said repeatedly."

AT&T dangled several incentives in an effort to convince the aldermen to reject open access. The company promised to provide free high-speed Internet service to every school and library in the city. It also proposed a reservation-of- rights clause that would have allowed the company's sweetheart deal with @Home while giving the city the right to mandate open access in the future. "We actually had it in an amendment form to President Slay, and he rejected it outright," Seidel says. "It never really got seriously discussed."

Slay dismisses AT&T's offers. "I told AT&T on a number of occasions, "If you have any suggestion on how to make this bill better, you tell me what it is,'" Slay says. "The only thing they did, they came in with some amendments that would have gutted the whole thing and taken out the open-access provision. Well, that's the whole point of it."

Slavin is incredulous. She sees the city turning its back on an offer to invest millions of private dollars in much-needed infrastructure. She also can't understand why AT&T would want to spend so much here in the first place, given the city's poverty rate and the fact that just 55,000 residents, about a sixth of the city's population, subscribe to cable television. "It's insane," she says. "I see it as appalling for a city of St. Louis that needs so much to bring it into the 20th century. I have to look at AT&T and say, "Why the hell would you want to go into St. Louis anyway?' How many people are going to want broadband high-speed service? I think I'd be tempted, if I were an AT&T, to walk away from it because I don't see it as a very profitable venture anyway."

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