Access ruling to spark court, legislative fights

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The courts and probably Congress are the likely next stops for the Federal Communications Commission's controversial decision Thursday to continue shielding the cable industry from
Internet-access obligations.

After conducting an 18-month inquiry, the FCC declared that local governments
cannot force cable companies to carry competing Internet-service providers on their high-speed modem
services, nor would the commission exercise its right to impose that obligation
anytime soon.

Specifically, the commission ruled that cable-modem service is an
"information service," which places nearly all oversight of the business in the
hands of the FCC and very little with local regulators. The decision does give
the FCC authority to impose access obligations later if it sees fit, but by a 3-1
vote, the panel decided to continue its hands-off policy.

The commissioners also tentatively concluded that local cable regulators may
not impose franchise fees on cable-modem service, nor impose higher rights-of-way
fees when operators add broadband service over their existing video service.

Finally, the FCC tentatively concluded that it will exercise its authority to
forbear regulation if an earlier federal appeals court's open-access ruling
ultimately is upheld.

"This will make the cable MSO the god of your computer screen," said Harold
Feld, associate director of Media Access Project, which announced that it will take
the FCC to court over the decision.

Equally miffed were local officials, who nevertheless were more circumspect
about fighting another round of court battles over Internet access.

Democratic commissioner Michael Copps and key party brethren on Capitol Hill
complained about the decision, but agency chairman Michael Powell said the
increasing availability of broadband over competing cable, telephone and
satellite platforms eventually will make today's debate seem "quaint and
unimportant."

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