ISPs to form national lobbying group

Aim to protect access to broadband pipes owned by major telecom companies

WASHINGTON -- A group of independent Internet service providers (ISPs), fearing they will be denied access to the broadband pipes owned by major cable and telecommunications companies, are forming a grassroots group to lobby the U.S. Congress.

More than 100 representatives of ISPs took the first steps late Wednesday toward setting up a national ISP association that would have branches in all 50 U.S. states, during a "call-to-action" meeting at ISPCON in Washington, D.C. One goal for organizers of the fledgling National Internet Alliance is to support a court case against the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which ruled in March 2002 that cable modem broadband service is an unregulated information service. Without FCC regulation, cable companies are not required to share their broadband networks with other ISPs.

In October 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District ruled against the FCC, opening up cable modem networks to competing ISPs in a case brought by Brand X Internet Services LLC, based in Santa Monica, California. In March, the court denied an FCC request for a rehearing of the case, but the FCC, as well as the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), have asked for, and been granted, a stay of the court's decision pending a request for the Supreme Court to take the case.

Although the court case has gone their way so far, organizers of the National Internet Alliance fear an FCC victory in the case will pave the way for the FCC to also rule that DSL (digital subscriber line) networks will also be allowed to shut out competing ISPs. Currently, the major telecommunications carriers that own most DSL networks must allow competing ISPs to offer service using their lines. If that happens, many independent ISPs will be forced out of business, said speakers at the call-to-action meeting at ISPCON.

"One of the things we were concerned about is the FCC's attempt to legitimize monopolies by these really large companies," said Jim Pickrell, president of Brand X. "If we lose this, we don't have any right to be in business at all. You can pack up and go home."

The NCTA has argued the appeals court has erred in overruling the "expert" agency in charge of developing communications policy. "Well-established U.S. Supreme Court precedent provides that where a statute is ambiguous, courts are compelled to defer to reasonable agency interpretations," Daniel Brenner, senior vice president for law and regulatory policy at NCTA, said in statement after the court's October ruling.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell and the incumbent owners of telecommunications networks, often called the regional Bell operating companies, also argue that by requiring the incumbents to share their networks with competitors, the courts are discouraging the incumbents from investing in new technologies and offering better service.

Powell, when reacting to the court's decision not to rehear the case, said the court is halting an important policy debate.

"The commission has worked tirelessly to advance economic growth and investment in high-speed Internet networks," he said in an April 1 statement. "This decision ... prolongs uncertainty to the detriment of consumers."

But representatives of ISPs at Wednesday's meeting said the FCC's decision to favor incumbent owners of the networks gives consumers fewer options when choosing an ISP. The independent ISPs need to organize and get their millions of customers to contact Congress about the broadband-sharing rules and other issues, said David Robertson, president of the Texas ISP Association.

Organizers of the National Internet Association counted less than a dozen active state ISP groups. Other groups, including the Federation of Internet Solution Providers (FISPA) and the American Alliance of Service Providers (AASP), represent some ISPs, but independent ISPs don't have a single national voice to lobby on issues, Robertson said. Several associations pledged their support to the new national group, including FISPA and AASP.

"Simply getting a person or two to tell our stories isn't enough," Robertson said. "The FCC says it doesn't see us. It's told me it doesn't see us dozens and dozens of times."

Robertson asked audience members Wednesday about other issues the national group should work on. Among the issues mentioned were fighting a FCC decision shielding incumbent telecoms from sharing new fiber loops and making more radio spectrum available to ISPs.

Organizers of the National Internet Association plan to create a Web site and a national phone number for the group within the next month. Organizers plan to meet again at a FISPA convention in New Orleans in late May. The group also plans to start active ISP associations in all 50 states. State associations are needed so that members of Congress hear from their own constituents, Robertson said.

"We need to work together, or we're all going to close," Pickrell told the audience. "If we don't work together, we're dead."

The National Internet Association will not have the same money to spend on lobbying as do cable companies and incumbent telecoms, but it could rally voters, Robertson said. "If we can get the unity of a monster group of people marching in the same direction ... (the possibility) sends a chill down my spine," he said.