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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail


The other day I was hard at work on Episode 48 of my science fiction novel, "A Season in Methven", when I heard the doorbell ring.

My callers wore the standard environmental crusaders' uniform: Birkenstocks, cargo shorts and Free KPFA tee shirts. They were armed with clipboards and ever-so-earnest expressions and they launched into their pitch the moment I opened my door.

"Do you know about the terrible things that are happening to the old-growth forests in Northern California?"

I did, of course.

"We're collecting signatures to support legislation to stop what's going on."

IMHO, the only good way to stop Charlie Hurwitz is to put a stake through his heart -- preferably a redwood stake. Even so, I asked to look at their petition. It didn't say much of anything specific -- just "I support" a short list of feel-good buzz words.

"What we really need is your donation. We'd like you to write a check right now for whatever amount you can afford."

"Would you? And do you perhaps have literature? Say, something a little more substantial than your petition?"

"We don't give out literature unless you're sure you want to donate. We don't want to kill trees for no reason and our research shows we get less than a 1% donation rate, if we just leave a brochure."

So very, VERY earnest.

"Well, then, how about an URL? Surely you have a Web site?"

"If we don't leave with a check now, chances are 100 to 1 that you won't send us a donation."

"I see."

And I did see. Those excruciatingly earnest young men were running a con -- preying on the guilty consciences of neighborhood environmentalists to line their own pockets. Of course they weren't going to give me an URL. There wasn't one. Nor was there literature. There was only those two grifters and their sleazy little scam.

So I shut my door and shook my head and went back to work on my novel.

The thing is, through hard experience, I've learned to recognize predators parading around in ruminants' clothing. Take the issue of "open access", for instance.

Billion Dollar Babies

On November 16, 1998, Oregon's Mount Hood Cable Regulatory Commission adopted Resolution 98-12 recommending that Multnomah County and the Cities of Portland and Hayden Island approve the purchase of their existing TCI cable franchises by AT&T -- which was then still in the process of taking over TCI -- with certain conditions. One of them required the new franchise holder (AT&T) to provide "nondiscriminatory treatment of other providers in connection with TCI's proposed internet cable modem platform and services."

On January 12, 1998, Portland adopted the MHCRC's recommendations, in an ordinance that required AT&T to "provide, and cause the Franchisees to provide, non-discriminatory access to the Franchisees' cable modem platform for providers of Internet and on-line services, whether or not such providers are affiliated with Transferee or the Franchisees."

On Tuesday, January 19, 1999, AT&T, TCI and assorted local TCI subsidiaries filed suit against Portland and Multnomah County in Oregon's U.S. District Court, asking that the "non-discriminatory access" provision of the transfer agreement be overturned.

Over the next few months, motions and counter-motions, briefs and counter-briefs flew like artillery barrages. U S West, the Oregon ISP Association and OGC Telecomm all "intervened" in the suit -- making themselves co-defendents in order to add their legal firepower to the exchange. Both sides filed for summary judgement, requesting that the judge rule in their favor without the nuisance of an actual trial.

When the smoke cleared on June 3, 1999, Judge Owen M. Panner had granted the defendants' motion for summary judgement in their favor. AT&T/TCI had lost the crucial first battle in what would soon become a wider -- and very public -- war.

Predictably, on June 15, 1999 -- less than two weeks after Judge Panner handed down his decision -- AT&T asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn it. Meantime, the spinmeisters were out in force. Mark Rosenblum, AT&T's vice president of law, opined, "the real losers are likely to be the citizens of Portland and Multnomah County," adding, "This decision can only have the potential to delay and reduce the new services that companies like AT&T will be able to offer them."

Perhaps emboldened by the Oregon decision, in Florida, on July 13, 1999, the Broward County Board of Commissioners also voted to require all cable franchisees in the county to open their cable systems to competing ISPs. Just over a week later, on July 21, Comcast filed suit to overturn that decision -- but, as AT&T spokesman Mike Pruyn noted in promising to join the Comcast suit, "They just beat us to it."

That same day, Los Angeles' Information Technology Agency lobbed its own mortar round into the fray by recommending to the City Council that it "should not order cable companies to open their cable modem platforms to unaffiliated Internet service providers," because "cable modem services already permit single 'click through' to unaffiliated content providers."

The real public relations counterattack came not from Portland or from Multnomah or Broward Counties, but from the OpenNet Coalition -- a group of ISPs that saw a golden opportunity in the "open access" cause.

A group led by America Online.

And all of the above merely set the stage for the first real set-piece battle of the campaign, which took place in San Franciso.

Beware of Darkness

In the days leading up to the Board of Supervisors' vote on AT&T's cable franchise transfer application, San Franciso experienced a literally unprecedented contest of lobbying muscle as AOL's OpenNet and its SBC-funded local handmaiden, the Bay Area Open Access Coalition (http://www.boac.net/) struggled mightily against AT&T's disingenuously-named counterbattery, Hands Off the Internet.

Both sides spent money like drunken sailors vying for the favors of an aging hooker. Each funded TV and radio commercials, romanced local allies, gave out tee shirts and hats and generally wallowed in blatant power politics.

AT&T's telemarketers coached their often-confused customers to agree they opposed open access -- and switched them to Supervisors' direct phone lines to state their support before those customers could forget their lines. SBC retaliated in kind. Both sides inundated the Board with email and faxes, as well. It was absolutely shameless -- and not particularly effective.

As Michael Yaki, one of the Supervisors who fielded both kinds of call, put it, "I always believe you have to understand the difference between grassroots and Astroturf."

On July 26, 1999, the San Franciso Board of Supervisors -- famous around the globe for passing resolutions telling other countries how to behave -- performed a typical act of political cowardice when it voted 9 to 2 to accept the immediate transfer of its cable franchise to AT&T, while postponing a decision on whether to require open access. Only Board President Tom Ammiano and Supervisor Leland Yee voted against delaying the day of reckoning.

The subject will next come up December 15, 1999, when the Board's legal staff presents a status report on the Oregon and Florida lawsuits -- and the smart money says the Supes will uphold their invertebrate decision.

After all, it's an election year.

How Do You Sleep?

What gravels a lot of people -- including yours truly -- about the whole sorry spectacle is the rank odor of hypocrisy exuded by both sets of combatants. They each have valid arguments to make, but they choose simpleminded sanctimony, instead.

AT&T doesn't want to spend billion of dollars upgrading its new cable systems only to be forced to share them with its competitors. Its position is based on good old American selfishness and greed, not selfless devotion to its customers.

"Hands off the Internet," indeed.

And AOL's and SBC's motives are even more meretricious. SBC has the dubious distinction of being the Baby Bell that has most fiercely resisted opening its own network to competition. And had AOL not recently lost its own bid to take over cable MSO MediaOne, would Steve Case be excoriating AT&T for resisting open access today?

Not bloody likely.

The bottom line here is that consumers don't have a dog in this fight. It's not about enabling them to access alternative ISPs.

It's the other way around.

While the stakes for ISPs remain high, should the Portland decision be overturned, it won't be anything close to the end of the world. AOL has its $1.5 billion investment in Hughes Electronics' DirectPC network. CLECs -- most of which are also ISPs -- have DSL. And competitive cable MSOs with a focus on providing Internet and alternative telephone service are beginning to challenge AT&T for its own customers, as Seren Innovations is now doing in Concord, California.

People don't like to be played for suckers. It tees them off -- and justifiably so. And -- sooner or later -- your customers are going to figure out that everybody involved in this meaningless war is lying to them.

Woe betide you if they catch you doing it -- and it won't matter how earnest you look.

(Copyright© 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)