SNAP CALL

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

The barrage of full-page newspaper ads and television commercials didn't help. Nor did the swarm of lobbyists that had buzzed the backrooms of City Hall. Craig Schmid needed something else.

Here were two of the nation's telecommunications heavyweights, duking it out over who would control access to the Internet. On one side was AT&T, which plans a major upgrade of its St. Louis cable system; on the other, Southwestern Bell, the region's dominant provider of local phone service.

For weeks, Schmid and other members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen had been whipsawed by two competing visions of the future -- AT&T promising better cable service and a new residential phone system; Bell and its allies warning that AT&T was angling for an Internet monopoly and less competition.

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."
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.

Now, as Aldermanic President Francis Slay Jr. pushed for a final vote, some of his colleagues didn't know which way to go. Should they side with AT&T, which owns a cable system, formerly known as TCI, notorious for poor service and high prices, or go with Bell, which has held a lock on local residential phone service since the breakup of Ma Bell in 1984? It was like being asked to yank the least ugly alligator from a bucket.

Schmid had heard all he wanted from the lobbyists. Now what he needed was a crystal ball. "What I really need somebody to do is predict the future," the 10th Ward Democrat told the other aldermen. "I need somebody to tell me where these technologies are going to be a month from now, three months from now, a year, five years, 10 years from now."

It had been less than a month since Slay introduced a bill that would require AT&T to open its cable lines to competitors offering Internet access. The company wanted to steer business to @Home, which is partially owned by AT&T. Competing Internet service providers such as America Online fear that this would put them out of business. Only one committee hearing had been held. Consumer groups were sharply divided. The city communications director, a mayoral appointee, was against the bill.

No wonder some aldermen were confused as they prepared to vote on Oct. 29. During floor debate, Ald. Lewis Reed (D-6th), rose to clarify the finer points of broadband services, including "frame relay, fractional T1's, ISDN, PRI and BRI.

"You have to look at all those," Reed told puzzled colleagues.

"You might as well have been speaking German, French or Spanish, because most of us do not know what you were talking about," quipped Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th).

Yet, under heavy pressure from Southwestern Bell, the board voted 21-7 to approve Slay's bill. And on Nov. 12, Mayor Clarence Harmon gave Bell and its allies what they wanted. With his signature, St. Louis became only the sixth local government -- and the third-largest in the nation -- to mandate that its cable operator provide open access.

City Hall insiders say it was the most intensely lobbied fight they've ever seen. But after the dust settled and a winner emerged, it still wasn't clear exactly what had been decided.

One thing is certain: The Board of Aldermen put St. Louis on the front line of a high-stakes national battle over the future of the Internet. Critics who contend the city should have left well enough alone say St. Louis is risking delays in getting a state-of-the-art telecommunications system while inviting a costly lawsuit.

Elsewhere, AT&T, which has more than 500 cable franchises, has been winning most of its political battles. Seattle rejected open access earlier this year. Just last month, Denver voters overwhelmingly approved a renewal of AT&T's cable franchise without open access after a campaign that cost the company nearly $1.4 million. In two cases where local governments have mandated open access -- Portland, Ore., and Broward County, Fla. -- AT&T has filed lawsuits, claiming local officials have no right to require cable franchisees to open their lines to competitors. "They're fighting this open-access issue all over the country," says Larry Stone, director of the city's communications division. "And while it's not widespread, it's just enough of a gnat in the eye to be very irritating."

In addition to the best litigators money can buy, AT&T has a serious bargaining stick. It says it won't bring state-of-the-art cable services to any area that mandates open access. That threat carries much more than the possibility of no high-speed Internet access: There would be no alternative to Southwestern Bell for residential phone service and no improvement to cable-television service. AT&T has shown it will punish cities that don't play by its rules. For all the praise Portland has won for standing up to AT&T, the city has no high-speed Internet service through cable lines. The system is being upgraded, but the company says it won't provide high-speed service until litigation is decided.

Deb Seidel, AT&T governmental-relations director, says the company will install broadband first in places where it can get the quickest return on its investment. Without open access, which Seidel refers to as "forced access," St. Louis is on the company's Top 10 list for a system upgrade, she says. With open access, the city falls on the company's priority list. "AT&T has a limited number of capital dollars at any point," Seidel says. "It's going to be in areas where it's politically better for us to go."

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.

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

Phone companies began offering residential high-speed Internet service through digital subscriber lines, or DSLs, when cable companies like AT&T announced plans to wire the nation for broadband. The phone industry is now racing against cable companies to upgrade equipment and win markets. In October, Southwestern Bell announced a $6 billion plan to bring DSL to 80 percent of its Midwestern customers within three years. The company began offering service in St. Louis in July, but availability is spotty. You can't get DSL unless you live within three miles of a transmission center, and those centers tend to be in neighborhoods where folks own computers. That leaves areas like the North Side largely without DSL service. Southwestern Bell has not set a date for bringing DSL to the entire city. Before passage of the open-access law, AT&T had promised to upgrade the city's cable system by the end of 2001.

The FCC likes this race between phone and cable companies and is loath to do anything that might slow it down. The feds want multiple information pipelines so consumers can choose among cable, telephone and wireless systems, which are still being perfected. Once there's a choice of pipeline, the feds believe, the free market will make the open-access question moot. Though the feds favor open access, they're willing to put up with closed systems on the theory that government interference will slow investment in upgrades. In a September speech at an Atlanta telecommunications conference, FCC Chairman Kennard made his position clear.

"What I am hearing on this issue is a lot of rhetoric that the sky is falling, but when I look out in the marketplace and see only a million cable-modem subscribers and about 200,000 DSL subscribers, my first reaction is to allow this marketplace to play out for a while before we step in and start regulating," Kennard said. "If there are competitive problems, we will step in."

In other words, the FCC is saying, "Trust us." That's not good enough for St. Louis and some other local governments. County Council Chairman Jeff Wagener predicts St. Louis County will mandate open access as a condition for renewing AT&T's franchise in January. AT&T serves about 10,000 households in the county. "We don't want to enter into a 10-year agreement with the cable company that doesn't have open access in the event the feds would not act quickly," Wagener says. "We can't be certain that they're going to do anything. Then we're locked into a 10-year agreement without open access."

Charter Communications, with 240,000 customers, is the dominant cable provider in the county, which extended the company's franchise for 10 years late last year. Open access never came up, but Wagener says it will if the company seeks any modifications to its franchise agreement, even on unrelated issues. Meanwhile, the company says it is upgrading its system for high-speed Internet service and has begun offering it in the county.

It's too early to say how open access will play in St. Charles, where the city's franchise with AT&T is up for renewal next spring. "We're not to the point of negotiations yet," says Brent Schulz, assistant to the city administrator. "My assumption is, it will be an issue and it will come up." AT&T has 20,000 subscribers in the city of 60,000.

The main function of an Internet service provider (ISP) is providing an e-mail account and getting you on the Web. Open access means America Online or any other ISP would have the same access to cable lines as AT&T's own @Home, so computer users could choose any ISP. Under AT&T's business plan, everyone would be forced to have @Home and pay additional fees if they wanted a second ISP.

Open access wasn't on anyone's radar screen until Portland mandated it a year ago. The issue arose as a result of AT&T's acquisition of Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) last year, a $48 billion deal AT&T says was primarily designed to get the company into the local residential telephone business. In theory, local phone companies, which must open their telephone lines to competitors, already have competition. In practice, however, rivals of the Baby Bells have gone after large corporate accounts rather than offering phone service to individual homes.

Hundreds of local governments got the chance to review their cable franchises as a result of the TCI-AT&T merger. In Portland, the city made open access a condition of franchise transfer. In St. Louis, the issue came up because the city's cable franchise is up for renewal, allowing the city to define the services it wants.

Phone companies would have you believe that they're looking out for your best interests. "The company believes very strongly in open access," says Jonathan Wilcox, a Southwestern Bell spokesman. "And the company believes to its core that open access is an issue of fundamental fairness and consumer choice, and that is what the company stands for and believes in all places. What they (AT&T) want is the monopoly deal. Frankly, there is never a good time, never a justification and never any reason to have a monopoly preference on any telecommunications service. Consumers must always have choice."

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."

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."

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.

Carolyn Seward, executive director of Missourians for Open Internet Access, says anyone who uses computers has a natural interest in open access. "We're saying, "Listen, AT&T. You should allow customers and consumers to choose the ISP of their choice,'" she says. "A customer should have the choice and the right to pick any ISP of their choice and pay one time for it."

Seward's group is funded by Southwestern Bell, which causes AT&T and Slavin to dismiss the group as Astroturf -- fake grassroots support. Several disability groups also lent their support to the open-access law, but that, too, is tainted by Southwestern Bell money.

David Newburger, a St. Louis attorney known for representing disability groups, urged aldermen to pass the law on the grounds that AT&T can't be trusted to make the Internet accessible to the disabled community. "I'm an advocate as opposed to a lobbyist," he says. "Paraquad and Missouri Council of the Blind and Missouri Association of the Deaf are the groups we do this with."

However, according to disclosure documents maintained by the state Public Service Commission, Southwestern Bell paid Newburger $300,000 between 1995 and 1997 for "consulting and research services." So it amy not be surprising that the positions he takes on behalf of the disabled consistently align with the interests of Southwestern Bell.

Newburger last year urged the FCC to disapprove the merger of AT&T and TCI. Last summer, he urged the FCC to approve the buyout of Ameritech by SBC Communications, parent company to Southwestern Bell. In a legal brief to the FCC supporting the buyout, Newburger's advocacy group, called Campaign for Telecommunications Access, said telephone companies are "the only clear last hope for bringing broadband technology the last mile to our homes and neighborhoods."

Slavin considers Newburger a hired gun for Southwestern Bell. "It's a meal ticket," she says. "He has convinced himself to some extent he's doing this as a disability issue. Quite honestly, people who are homebound and want high- speed broadband, they'll be benefited by AT&T upgrading the system."

Newburger two years ago fought an FCC decision that required phone companies to reduce their charges to long-distance carriers such as MCI, which were subsidizing local residential service by paying inflated access fees to local phone companies. In a 1997 letter to U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) blasting MCI, Newburger sounds eerily like the cable companies who now say they shouldn't be required to let everyone on a network they paid for. "What MCI wants from you and the FCC is a proverbial free lunch," Newburger wrote. "Indeed, its gambit is to get federal rules that assure it a virtually free ride on the backs of residential local telephone customers. If MCI doesn't like what it has to pay for local telephone service delivery of their customers' calls, it should build its own local network." That same year, Newburger was paid $70,000 by Southwestern Bell, according to Public Service Commission records.

Newburger doesn't flinch at lobbying on behalf of the disabled while taking money from the phone company. "We don't hide that fact," he says. "They like what we say, and so sometimes we get money here and there. I don't want to mislead you in the slightest. The campaign and the work that we've done in telecommunications, we have gone to telephone companies and we have said we are natural allies; please support what we're doing. We have gotten support and that's a continuing matter. Telephone companies have given money for our campaign even currently."

The cable companies snicker at the idea that phone companies are the natural allies of the disabled. "Isn't that funny how that happens," says Celeste Vossmeyer, a Charter Communications spokeswoman. AT&T feels the same way. "I think it's just kind of a joke saying he would go around saying he was representing the handicapped when he was getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from this other source," says Steve Weber, an AT&T lobbyist. "Follow the money."

Sheri Keller, executive director of Missouri Council for the Blind, says her support for open access is genuine. Blind people need specialized Internet service, such as icons that provide audio prompts. "Point-and-click doesn't work too well for us," she says. Keller thinks competition between Internet service providers would address the needs of the blind better than @Home. "I have an MBA," she says. "What would you expect?"

St. Louis has a dismal history when it comes to dealing with cable companies. The city was the last municipality in the region to receive cable television, thanks to bungling by the Board of Aldermen while awarding a cable franchise in the early 1980s. Cable television had been available in surrounding areas for two years before the Board of Aldermen finally awarded a cable franchise in 1984 after a decade of talking about cable systems. Four Democratic Party power brokers and Aldermanic President Thomas Zych were indicted on federal charges of extorting cable companies seeking the franchise. Zych was acquitted, and the other indictments were eventually dropped.

But the memory remains. Mayor Harmon, an early supporter of open access, says past cable scandals were one reason he delayed signing the open-access bill for two weeks. He admits having second thoughts after first endorsing open access in an Oct. 12 letter to the aldermanic Public Utilities Committee. "I was concerned that something untoward had happened, quite frankly," he says. "I was initially concerned it was dealt with so quickly by the Board of Aldermen. That doesn't necessarily signal a good turn of events, as prior history has indicated with cable bills and gaming and the rest of that. I tried to take my time with it. In finality, I became convinced it wouldn't stifle competition."

The mayor says his decision to sign the bill was vindicated by a Nov. 18 FCC ruling that requires local phone companies to open their lines to competitors who want to offer DSL service. He said he anticipated the FCC's action. "I took somewhat of a gamble that they would," he says. The FCC decision is designed to get as many competitors as possible into the broadband business to speed the spread of the high-speed highway and to give consumers a choice of DSL providers. As Harmon sees it, AT&T will be forced to upgrade its cable system to avoid losing market share to companies offering DSL. Like Slay, he doesn't take seriously AT&T's threat to delay a system upgrade. "A lot of that was hype," he says. "Ultimately, everybody's going to offer this stuff. There will be competition. It will be different than what we've probably heard from either of the major competitors."

But Harmon can't guarantee he's done the right thing.

"All of what I've told you may ultimately prove to be the wrong move," he says. "History will judge that."

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