By Lindsay Toler
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By Allison Babka
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Free Internet service over narrowband lines has become commonplace as service providers have learned to make money from advertisers rather than computer users. Open-access advocates say Internet-access costs on the high-speed highway would be kept in check were service providers given access to high-speed lines on an equal basis with @Home. "One of the tenets of politics is that people care about pocketbook issues, and it really is a pocketbook issue," says Marshall Runkel, aide to Portland City Councilman Erik Sten, who led the fight for open access in that city.
In areas where AT&T has upgraded its system, subscribers can still use America Online or any other service provider, but they must pay extra, typically $10 a month. Few believe customers would pay the extra charge, which goes to the service provider, not AT&T, once they have an e-mail account and access to the Web. Bottom line, AT&T's plan threatens the very existence of the nation's 6,400 Internet service providers.
Some say the issue goes beyond money. The direst scenario painted by open-access advocates is an Orwellian world in which AT&T, once given the keys to the cyberworld's gate, would censor the Internet, cutting access to some Web sites, especially when advertising dollars are at stake. It might work like this: Say Amazon.com has a deal with @Home. In addition to advertising the mail-order book company, @Home might saddle competing book stores with slow transmission. Richard Bond, co-director of OpenNet, an open-access advocacy group funded by America Online, claims this is already happening -- at least, he's pretty sure it is.
"I believe once you don't use Amazon.com and you're pursuing books, you're back on the slow lane," Bond says. "I'm 90 percent sure I'm correct on that. So you are S.O.L. with broadband unless you're using their sites. The threat that these guys pose to content is scary."
Bond, a former Republican Party national chairman whose expertise is politics, is flat wrong about the bookstores. Yes, Amazon.com has more prominent advertising than Your Corner Bookstore, but if a store has a Web site and high-speed lines, you can go there and place orders by way of the high-speed Internet. AT&T has also told the city it would guarantee full access to all sites on the Internet and allow Internet users to bypass @Home entirely if they decide to purchase services from another Internet service provider. Though AOL fans wouldn't have to see @Home pages, they'd still have to pay for the @Home service as poart of AT&T's Internet package.
AOL appears to be playing on both sides of the fence. While lobbying governments to mandate open access, the company has also been trying to make a deal with AT&T to replace @Home as the cable company's partner. Meanwhile, SBC Communications, parent company to Southwestern Bell, on Nov. 22 entered into a partnership with Prodigy, which will be the exclusive Internet service provider for Southwestern Bell DSL subscribers. The deal is much like the one between AT&T and @Home. SBC has promised to deliver 1.2 million subscribers to Prodigy.
If you don't believe AT&T would censor the Internet, Bond and his cohorts have another argument with much appeal for anyone who's cursed the cable-television company: The same people who've jacked up your cable-television rates, the ones who don't answer their phones when Cinemax turns to snow, the guys who won't give you the Food Channel or the Sci-Fi Network, now want the same stranglehold on the Internet that they have on TV.
"Cable companies are known by regular folks like you and me for two things: ever-increasing costs and ever-decreasing customer service," Bond says. "If we know that as everyday consumers, and as the mayor certainly knows it as a person on top of the city, why on earth would we put these people in charge of the Internet?"
There's not much AT&T can say about that, except to promise they can and will do better. Everyone agrees St. Louis has a substandard cable system. With some 800 miles of cable, the city's current system relies on amplifiers to boost television signals as they move from cable-television headquarters to a subscriber's home. Depending on where a subscriber lives, the signal could pass through as many as 30 amplifiers before reaching a person's home. Each amplifier represents a weak point in the system. A broken amplifier can stop sending signals entirely. Amplifiers also make bad signals worse.
AT&T's proposed upgrade would reduce the number of amplifiers and the potential for problems. Television signals would be fired to distribution nodes around the city by way of optic fiber, then sent into homes through conventional coaxial cable. At most, there would be two or three amplifiers between a person's home and the distribution node. "It promises to be a much more reliable system with consistently better pictures," Stone says.
The very name of the referendum campaign organized by Charter and AT&T -- Citizens for Lower Phone Bills -- frames the issue in a way most voters can grasp. What's harder to understand is what's at stake for some of the organizations that back the city's new law. Missourians for Open Internet Access, an umbrella group formed three months ago to lobby for the new law, lists more than 50 groups that support open access. Among them are the Missouri Council of the Blind, the Missouri Cosmetology Commission and People Against Murder.