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2005-06-28

Supreme Court Rules Cable Companies Not Required to Share Broadband Lines

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The Supreme Court ruled Monday that cable companies are not required to share their high-speed Internet broadband networks with rivals. The decision will likely have a major impact on how consumers get their Internet access. [includes rush transcript]

In its second major Internet decision of the day, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that cable companies are not required to share their high-speed Internet broadband networks with rivals. The decision will likely have a major impact on how consumers get their Internet access.

The media advocacy group FreePress warned that the decision could mark the end of independent internet service providers.

The case was brought by Brand X–a small ISP based in Santa Monica, California. The company’s president Jim Tickrell, said yesterday, "The Bush administration has made it clear that they are hostile toward small, independent service providers like us. And we think that is a big disaster for consumers, and a huge win for the monopolistic phone and cable companies, which spend millions of dollars on lobbying efforts."

  • Andrew Schwartzman, President and CEO of Media Access Project.
  • Tim Lay, attorney with Spiegel & McDiarmid in Washington, counsel for the National League of Cities and the US Conference of Mayors.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:We’re joined in Washington by Tim Lay, attorney with Spiegel & McDiarmid of Washington. He’s counsel for the National League of Cities and the US Conference of Mayors. His clients filed a cross-petition in the case the Supreme Court rejected. On the line, we’re joined by Andrew Schwartzman, President and CEO of Media Access Project. Andrew Schwartzman, first your response: What does this mean for media access?

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN:Well, it’s an unfortunate decision, not just in terms of consumer interests — that is, how much you pay for internet service, whether you have a choice of offerings in a competitive sense — but also in terms of the internet’s potential as a source of democratic discourse. Because what comes with this outcome is the possibility that cable systems will be in a position to actually block, slow down, or effect content available to you on the internet and diminish the internet as a source of democratic discourse.

AMY GOODMAN:Tim Lay, your response.

TIM LAY:Well, I agree basically with Andy about one impact of the decision. What we’re basically seeing is, to date I think most people have viewed the internet, when they’re online, sort of much like they view the telephone world. They expect their messages to be carried and expect to be able to reach anyone they want and anyone to reach them. What we’re seeing here is the beginning of a shift in the internet world where the FCC envisions a world that is more like the broadcasting and cable world, a world where the owner of the transmission facilities also can have control over content and who gets to use the transmission and under what conditions.

AMY GOODMAN:So, what happens now?

TIM LAY:I think the next step is the FCC has already tentatively proposed to treat telephone company provided wireline — I mean broadband services, such as digital subscriber line, the same way. In other words, to redefine them as information services and thereby freeing them of the obligation to provide access to others. So, I think what you’ll see is the telephone-company-side provided side of broadband in essence treated the same way by a decision by the FCC as a result of this. There also, of course, will be a result by ISPs and others to try to lobby Congress to address this issue, and provide some sort of open access or network neutrality as part of proposals to reform the Federal Telecommunications Act.

AMY GOODMAN:Andrew Schwartzman, can you talk about this decision and how it relates to community wireless, cities and towns providing wireless internet service at cheap or free — for cheap or free?

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN:Well, it doesn’t have a direct effect. It has an indirect effect because it’s going to increase the power of a handful of companies to dominate and shape the internet. It shouldn’t affect the ability of municipalities to set up and establish these networks, but it may limit their ability to get the internet service necessary at the head end of those systems in order to make them work.

AMY GOODMAN:And Tim Lay, you represent the National Conference of Cities?

TIM LAY:Yes. I mean, one interesting effect is, if other avenues of local broadband communications, both wireline and wireless, are sort of increasingly moved to sort a closed network model, that might actually increase the incentives and the opportunities for local municipal distribution systems as sort of the only true sort of open access alternative.

AMY GOODMAN:Do you agree, Andrew Schwartzman? Do you think —

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN:Yes. I’m sorry, you’re not getting much of a dialogue here, cause Tim and I, I think, are going to be in substantial agreement on most of these points. I think that the fundamental thing is that it — this decision really creates a closed internet, diminishes the prospect of the internet being what it could be, and it’s an area where technology and its capabilities for democracy are delimited by thoughtless government action. And it is not only possible in Congress, but at the FCC, to get some of the safeguards that are necessary to protect that from happening. Those are uphill battles, but I think it’s going to shape the agenda of a lot of the progressive organizations in order to try to protect against some of those eventualities.

AMY GOODMAN:Tim Lay, if you have, for example, Time Warner providing cable to your home, and they have a deal with Barnes & Noble, can that block out Amazon from your being able to have access to it, or promotes a particular company? Can it stop information from getting through to your home?

TIM LAY:Well, what it does — Yeah — The short answer is yes. What it means is that Time Warner would no longer be under a legal obligation to have both Barnes & Noble or Amazon, or treat them equally, or give you equal access to each. That isn’t to say it’ll be an immediate result; but it changes in the sense that there’s no legal compulsion for them to do that. Now, in fairness, the industries argue that the marketplace would force them to, because they’d lose subscribers; if they did that, who would go over to the other provider where they could get access to all of them? Of course, that depends upon your judgment as to how many providers there will be in the end. If there are only two, say your local telephone company and your local cable company, that might not result in the marketplace incentives working as well, because a duopoly does not really perform like a competitive market.

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN:A scarier version of that question, —

AMY GOODMAN:Andrew Schwartzman.

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: — Amy, is that, suppose you have a website that says Time Warner sucks, or you have a website that’s promoting a candidate or promoting a ballot initiative about cable rates or something, and Time Warner makes it difficult or impossible for people to access that website on its system. So, it offers the potential for some genuine interference in the democratic process.

AMY GOODMAN:Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project and Tim Lay, representing the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

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