Jeff Baumgartner
I think Comcast Corp. President Brian Roberts had it right in late April when he told a Senate subcommittee hearing that he would not agree to a condition that would require Comcast to provide access to rival ISPs as part of its merger with AT&T Broadband. After all, Comcast, like every other MSO, spent its own money building and upgrading its networks to enable advanced services like high-speed Internet access.

But now Roberts has to make sure that those words stand up, and ensure that the Federal Communications Commission made the right decision in mid-March, when it classified cable modem service as an information service, rather than a telecommunications service. The net sum is that cable is not forced to carry unaffiliated ISPs on its networks.

Still, some may argue that regulating open access appears to work in spades. Time Warner Cable, the prime example, must provide access to unaffiliated ISPs, thanks to a condition imposed by the Federal Trade Commission on the AOL Time Warner merger. Today, Time Warner offers multiple ISPs in 30 of its 39 divisions.

Granted, others are trying to do their part as well. Comcast, following up on its technical trial in Philadelphia, is about to launch MISP (multiple ISPs) commercially in two markets. Cox Communications is trialing it in El Dorado, Ark., and AT&T Broadband, after an early pilot in Boulder, is preparing to offer ISP Choice in Seattle and Boston. While those efforts are admirable, they're still light years behind Time Warner Cable's.

It's probably going to take a much bigger commitment to pacify the Department of Justice, which is reviewing the Comcast-AT&T Broadband merger.

So why isn't the cable industry as a whole advancing faster on that front? Well, aside from the fact that it takes time and effort, there's one other pretty darn good reason: the large scale network migrations following the Excite@Home implosion were much more than a gnatty nuisance; they turned MSO high-speed data priorities on their heads.

With that now largely out of the way, I expect that we'll see loads of MISP activity through the rest of 2002. Perhaps we'll also see a revitalized effort behind the currently suspended CableB2B project at CableLabs, which was brought forth last year to help define common business communication interfaces between cable operators and third parties such as ISPs.

Offering multiple ISPs on cable networks could turn into some long-term good business for cable operators. Time Warner, for example, has noted that marketing multiple ISPs has translated into cable modem service penetration boosts in some of its early MISP markets.

Besides, many people are loyal to their narrowband ISPs. I, for one, have been an AOL subscriber for more than five years. The reason I've been with AOL this long is not because of its "walled garden" content–I can generally find any information I need on the Web–but because I don't want to change my personal e-mail address. It's a hassle I'd just assume avoid. Plus, I can access it while I'm on the road.

The other reason I've stayed with it is because I haven't had access to DSL or cable modem services at home. That's about to change, though, as my local operator recently upgraded the neighborhood, and I'll be calling every week until I find out exactly when I can get the service installed.

Even then, I don't plan to scrap my AOL account, even if it means altering my price plan. Like my home address, my e-mail address has become a part of my identity.