Consumer groups fear cable Net dominance

By Bob Wallace, Computer World |  Networking

Fearful of cable networks becoming information service monopolies as they are today for television programming, four key public advocacy groups yesterday asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to hold a meeting to discuss their requests for regulation of the burgeoning industry.

In this latest attempt to spur FCC action, the groups cited the availability of technology from multiple vendors that could let cable operators give users of their own Internet access services and Web sites better performance than, or restrict access to, those of rivals. The Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Media Education, the Media Access Project and Consumer Union jointly signed the letter to the FCC.

The groups said recent literature from Cisco Systems Inc. allegedly explains how cable operators can use the technology to get a leg up over rivals. Cisco, though, would only say that its white paper explains that the technology enables all service providers "to manage the flow and content of information over the network as deemed appropriate," company spokesman Tom Galvin said. "Cisco doesn't believe in the restriction of content access."

At issue: More cable operators want to provide Internet access and other communications and content services over their sprawling networks, pitting them against traditional Internet service providers. Realizing the competitive threat from cable networks, which service tens of millions of households, traditional service providers want access to the cable networks, which has been granted in only a few cities.

The concern about the use of performance prioritizing and restricting technology is that even if traditional Internet service providers are somehow granted access to cable networks, operators will retain a big leg up.

"There [are] no rules, so a cable operator could use the technology to make performance of their access service, content services and Web sites better for consumers than for competing services by controlling bandwidth," said Daniel Briere, president of TeleChoice Inc., a Boston consultancy. "Would any cable operator actually do this? I really doubt it, because if they were caught, there would be a huge public uproar."

Nonetheless, the cable industry does need some sort of legislation, Briere added. "And it's unfair to single out Cisco in this case, as many other equipment vendors offer this technology," he said.

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