Is Cisco choking broadband pipes?

Marketing materials from Cisco Systems tout the company's ability to restrict or slow consumers from reaching the Web sites of their choice while speeding along those headed to others. The wording is controversial amid calls for regulations to open US cable systems to competition from ISPs.

As Cisco Systemshelps build broadband Internet access through the nation's cable systems, the company isn't just dreaming about giving cable companies a way to speed access to certain Web sites and slow access to others.

They're bragging about it.

Marketing materials from Cisco Systems, one of the leading suppliers of Internet networking equipment for the cable industry, touts the company's ability to restrict or slow consumers from reaching the Web sites of their choice while speeding along those headed to others. Cisco's technology, the documents say, "could promote and offer your own or partners' services with full-speed features to encourage adoption of your services." At the same time, the material says the equipment can "restrict" incoming content and "subscribers' outgoing access" to "discourage its use."

The revelation came to light among documents presented to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by several prominent consumer groups that seek to mandate open access to the nation's cable systems. The groups -- including the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Media Access Project and the Center for Media Education -- are calling for regulations to open cable systems to competition from Internet service providers, or ISPs (Internet service providers).

In response, Cisco issued a statement saying that the company "makes this technology available to everybody. This technology is consistent with Cisco's open-standard philosophy and commitment to competition in the marketplace. This technology was designed with customers in mind who clearly want tools to protect against offensive content, such as hate and obscene materials."

But giving such technology to the cable companies creates an uneasy situation whereby they could potentially control both access and content for their online subscribers. In the cable television industry now, companies do control both access and content via channels -- a paradigm the consumers group don't want to repeat with broadband Internet access.

"This is the owner's manual that they're providing to the cable industry to monopolise the Internet," Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, said in an interview. Chester said he found the Cisco marketing materials earlier this summer while strolling through the convention of the National Cable Television Association in Chicago.

The prospect of screening access comes amid a growing national debate about whether cable broadband networks should be opened to competitive Internet service providers. The cable industry, which is spending billions of dollars rolling out these services, has so far avoided regulation of its networks, which now reach about one million customers nationwide.

In the meantime, the issue has been taken up in some cities and counties across the nation, spurred on by the concerns of America Online Inc. and other ISPs, which complain that they won't be able to reach cable Internet customers. Only Portland, Oregon, and Broward County, Florida, have so far called for regulation. Those rulings are being appealed by cable operators, with AT&T Corp. taking a lead role.

The FCC, which asserts that it has jurisdiction of the issue on a national basis, has been monitoring the debate but has so far taken a "hands-off" approach, with agency officials preferring to allow the market to determine what happens. "The FCC has the same goal as consumers and consumer groups," said FCC Cable Services Bureau Chief Deborah Lathen in a statement released Wednesday. "We want open access. Where we diverge is how to get there."

Lathen said that the Internet economy has generated over US$300 billion in revenue in the United States in the past year because its development has been driven by market forces. "The FCC has played an important role by creating a deregulatory environment in which the Internet could prosper."

But in a letter presented yesterday to FCC Chairman William Kennard, the consumer groups charged that the failure to require open networks threatens the future of the Internet. The letter says that granting cable operators the right to exclude ISPs "would strip the Internet of the very qualities that have made it one of the most powerful vehicles for free expression and economic growth."

A spokesman for AT&T, Jim McGann, said he was unsure whether any company officials had seen the marketing materials or if the cable operations that AT&T is acquiring, including Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) and MediaOne Group, even use the Cisco products. He reiterated the company's position that it would not seek to control access to content on the Internet.

"AT&T has every incentive to make content available on the Internet to everyone," McGann said. "We have no incentive to restrict any content. For them to use this as another vehicle to say 'The sky is falling and we must do something' is a little far-fetched. The correct policy is what the commission has adopted. Keep regulation out of Internet."

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