Is AT&T Serious About Open Access?

AT&T’s plan to open its high-speed network to rivals such as America Online is receiving mixed reviews.

AT&T and MindSpring Enterprises, Inc. sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman William Kennard that outlines a plan to allow consumers who access the Internet via AT&T’s cable TV lines to choose service from a number of companies.

However, this scenario would not go into effect until after 2002, when AT&T’s exclusive agreement with [email protected] expires.

On the face of it, AT&T seems to be complying with demands for open access made by its broadband-less rivals. However, some consumer advocates are looking askance at the plan.

Not Clearly Defined

Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, reportedly complained that AT&T failed to address fundamental issues of discrimination in its plan. He also pointed out that the telecommunications giant did not say whether it would let customers buy separate Internet, telephone and cable services.

While AOL — a strong proponent of open access — did not condemn AT&T’s proposal, the company did point out that the plan lacks much-needed specifics.

Is AT&T Hiding?

In fact, Andy Schwartzman — president of Media Access Project, a consumer advocacy group — wrote a separate letter to Kennard, claiming that AT&T is “hiding” behind an exclusive contract to delay the introduction of open access.

I think that Schwartzman makes an excellent point. If AT&T were really serious about opening its access, it would have done so immediately. It could have easily worked out a deal with [email protected], especially since it owns a majority stake in the company.

I believe that AT&T’s move was simply feigned compliance — served up at the appropriate moment to keep the FCC off its back a little longer.

Two Years Is An Eternity

The fact of the matter is that two years in Web time is an eternity. By the time that AT&T opens up its access, AOL may have already purchased [email protected] — while hundreds of smaller online service providers will have withered and died.

It is a warfare tactic that has worked for centuries. The winning side declares a cease-fire while its rag-tagged opponents wait for the truce to be signed. Then, while the generals haggle over the details, the enemy dies of starvation.

When AT&T opens its access in 2002, it will be interesting to see how many of its current rivals are still standing.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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