Next week Portland will again become a key battleground in the ongoing fight for control of the Internet.
On July 30 at City Hall, the American Civil Liberties Union will release a report arguing that telecom giants like AT&T Broadband should open their cable networks to competing Internet service providers. Meanwhile, at the Hilton, the National Association for Regulatory Utility Commissioners will be considering model legislation that would make those giant companies less subject to state and local control.
The issue dates back to 1999, when the City of Portland and Multnomah County required AT&T to allow ISPs, such as EasyStreet and Teleport, to use their cable for Internet access. (See "The Shot Heard 'Round the World Wide Web," WW, Aug. 11, 1999.) A federal district judge upheld the requirement but was overruled last summer by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result, if you want cable Internet access in Portland, there's only one choice in town--AT&T Broadband.
Critics, including the ACLU, say such cable-modem monopolies, which are common throughout the country, hinder free speech.
In the other camp, the NARUC is arguing that the cities and counties aren't getting out of the way of the corporate giants fast enough. A subcommittee chaired by Oregon Public Utility Commission member Joan Smith is meeting in Portland this week to review a report examining barriers to telecommunications. The committee is looking at legislation that would cut federal taxes levied on phone and cable companies while reducing state and local regulations. Such moves are aimed at allowing the telecoms to provide better service to their customers.
Currently, compensation for use of city streets is just over $70 million and is the second-largest source for the city's general fund. According to Marshall Runkel, an aide to City Commissioner Erik Sten, "The worst-case scenario is that the policy could undermine the city's regulatory regime." But Runkel says the city's concerns go beyond the monetary: The overall effect of the NARUC policy would hurt ISPs' ability to compete with larger companies, says Runkel. "Instead of hearing thousands of voices, a couple of big corporations control the majority of voices that people are exposed to," he says.