One of the key factors fueling the success and growth of the Internet has been the wide variety of choices consumers have among companies that provide Internet access. Consumers can choose a provider based on price, speed, customer support and content. Competition has brought prices down and provided consumers with the ability to access different types of content. As Internet companies begin rolling out the next generation of Internet content, they require customers to download the data in significantly faster ways. The next generation of Internet service – broadband – promises speeds 50 times faster and the ability to deliver high quality video, audio and digital content. Yet the cable companies, who control the most widely available distribution platform for broadband, decided that they wanted to try to deny consumers a choice and allow one of two cable Internet service providers (ISPs), both owned by the cable companies, to monopolize choice. The openNET Coalition – consisting of AOL, GTE, MCI Worldcom, EarthLink and more than 900 other Internet service providers – came together to force the cable industry to open their cable wires either through government intervention or the threat of government intervention. Since the cable companies were unwilling to voluntarily offer the consumers a choice, the Coalition hired Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide to assist it in making the issue of consumer choice, popularly known as open access, a legislative priority in more than a dozen states in 2000.
Because the cable companies thought open access was a threat to their monopolies, they made it clear that only their companies would be permitted to provide broadband Internet access over the cable wires. If the cable companies prevailed, customer choice of Internet providers would be eliminated, the variety of content found on the Internet dramatically limited and the growth of the latest consumer Internet technology stunted. To counter the cable companies’ deep pockets and legislative power at the state level, the openNET Coalition and Ogilvy PR needed to:
- Counter claims by the cable industry that open access rules were “regulating the Internet.”
- Develop and train local ISP officials to be effective spokespeople in what, for many, would be their first involvement in state politics and media relations.
- Educate policymakers and local media that open access was not an arcane business dispute, but an issue that went to heart of what made the Internet the economic force it has become.
- Launch and support simultaneous campaigns in multiple states at the same time and coordinate and track efforts during the often-short legislative sessions.
Use pressure from local governments to force the cable companies to open their broadband cable lines to all ISPs.
State and local government officials (legislators and regulators)
Influencers such as academics and consumer advocates
RESEARCH AND PLANNING
In order to map an effective strategy, it was essential to understand the level of support for open access regulation or legislation and to determine where our best chance for success lay. To this end, Ogilvy PR researched and analyzed the markets where the cable companies had their licenses under review to determine where we had leverage to impose a local open access condition. We then narrowed our list of targets based on markets that would be seen as bellwethers by the cable industry and cause them to rethink their opposition to open access.
Faced with an opposition led by cable giants AT&T and Time Warner, the Coalition and Ogilvy PR recognized that we could not match the cable companies dollar for dollar. Based on secondary research, we also understood that intervening action by the federal government action was unlikely.
As a result, we developed a “guerilla” strategy aimed at forcing the cable companies to fight open access proposals in key markets across the country. Ultimately, we believed that faced with enough pressure at the state and local levels, the cable companies would either voluntarily agree to open access or face federal government action to standardize open access across the country.
Coalition Building – Working with the Coalition, Ogilvy PR helped recruit more than 900 ISPs to join the Coalition. This was essential in demonstrating the widespread grassroots political importance of open access. In addition, we built bridges to industry analysts, academics and consumer groups to lend credibility to the open access position.
Grassroots Advocacy – In 19 states and more than two dozen local markets, Ogilvy PR worked with the Coalition to generate grassroots political support for open access. Ogilvy PR developed an “Open Access Action Kit” that was distributed to more than 900 ISPs around the country. The Action Kit contained the background information and the tools needed for the ISPs to become effective advocates for open access, including sample letters to state and local officials, sample op-eds and letters to the editor as well as a guide on conducting town meetings and forums with elected officials. In addition, we facilitated the participation of member ISPs in hearings before state legislatures and local governments.
Media Relations – The media campaign was designed to create a steady drumbeat about open access so that policymakers would recognize the political importance of the issue while the cable companies would understand the widespread support open access enjoyed.
To accomplish this, Ogilvy PR leveraged every activity and event related to open access to generate media coverage – from court hearings, to local government meetings, to resolutions being considered in state legislatures. We also worked with the Coalition to release white papers and position statements to create media coverage.
The results were spectacular. Open access went from being an arcane tech policy issue to front-page news. Among other leading outlets, coverage included: The Washington Post; The Wall Street Journal; The New York Times; Industry Standard; The Washington Times; Los Angeles Times; Boston Globe; The Detroit News; The Miami Herald; The Richmond Times-Dispatch
Coverage in dozens of local and regional dailies around the country
Regular coverage in the trade press, including Communications Daily and TR Daily
Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg all covered openNET’s efforts on a regular basis and openNET spokespeople and allies appeared on CNN, CNBC and C-SPAN.
By any measure the openNET campaign has been a success.
By July 2000, the two largest cable companies comprising nearly 60 percent of the cable market had agreed to allow open access to their cable wires.
A national survey Digital Media Forum found that nearly 90 percent of Americans did not want to be forced to accept the cable industry’s designated ISP.
Open access conditions were placed on cable companies in 14 markets around the country from Miami to Portland. Five states have formed study committees to make recommendations for action in 2001.