The Internet's status as an open forum for ideas will come under attack if cable companies aren't forced to open up their broadband networks to rivals, civil liberties and consumer advocacy groups said Monday.
"We're at a pivotal moment here," American Civil Liberties Union Associate Director Barry Steinhardt said at a town hall meeting. "I think it's inevitable that as the choice (of Internet providers) decreases, it will limit the choices of content that people can access."
Consumer groups have been battling with cable companies over open access for years, but the battle has become more urgent in recent months.
Although broadband adoption is surging in major cities, a recent study indicated that cable Internet providers are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of broadband growth. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission voted in March to shield cable companies from having to open their networks to smaller competitors.
At the same time, the cable industry has become increasingly consolidated, most recently with AT&T Broadband planning to merge with Comcast.
While AOL Time Warner and AT&T allow competing Internet providers to offer services through their cable networks -- and there are thousands of services offering dial-up accounts -- most consumers don't have that many choices for high-speed access, several speakers said. And even when they do, the choices are often the same service called by different names.
True "open access" would allow companies to offer different services at different prices, allowing for competition on price, speed and content, organizers said. Although such a system is technically feasible, it's all but unavailable in the United States.
"Open access is not just multiple ISPs," said Andrew Afflerbach, the author of a report commissioned by the ACLU on the technical aspects of open access. Afflerbach is a principal engineer at consulting firm Columbia Telecommunications (CTC).
The report examines current cable network systems and offers technical solutions for how cable companies could open their networks to rival Internet providers. In the short term, such solutions would require only minor repair and maintenance and not any major construction or upgrading of networks for most cable operators, the report says.
"Despite the claims of some cable operators, there is virtually no technical bar to allowing competing ISPs to offer services over cable systems, so long as a cable operator is willing or forced to cooperate in providing access," CTC said in its report.
Although cable faces competition from other broadband technologies such as DSL, satellite and wireless, those media won't be able to topple cable because of technical or geographical problems, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. High-speed access via DSL requires proximity to a telephone switching station and is generally only available in large metropolitan areas. Meanwhile, digital satellite companies often severely limit the speed on upstream transmissions, he said.
"Without open access, there will be fewer choices, fewer ways of getting to the Internet. One company can determine everyone's digital destiny," Chester said.
One outgrowth of the lack of competition among cable Internet providers could be a form of censorship, meeting organizers warned.
Even if they don't completely block Web sites, they could slow access to them to the point that they become all but impossible to reach, they said. Meanwhile, the cable companies could speed access to their own sites and to those of preferred partners.
"Whoever the partner is, they will be so featured, so preferred, that others will become invisible," Steinhardt said.
Gregory Brockbank said he attended the meeting because he's interested in free-speech issues. Although he said he was initially skeptical that a lack of open access could restrict free speech, going to the meeting helped convince him otherwise.
"Fewer numbers of companies in control means less diversity and less choice," Brockbank said. "I think it's a very important issue and a very real threat."
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