Political leaders spar over high-speed network sharing

U.S. regulators and antitrust officials should avoid ordering AOL and Time Warner to open cable lines to rivals until a national policy is established, a key federal lawmaker says.

WASHINGTON--U.S. regulators and antitrust officials should avoid ordering America Online and Time Warner to open cable lines to rivals until a national policy is established, a key federal lawmaker said.

Rep. Tom Bliley, chairman of the House Commerce Committee and a Virginia Republican, sent a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chairman Robert Pitofsky, saying the agency lacks expertise to impose such a requirement. He told Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard by letter that such an access requirement may exceed that agency's authority.

Forcing the companies to open their cable lines to competitors has been a key issue in the America Online-Time Warner reviews. Rivals say that without such a requirement, the company will dominate the high-speed Internet market, discriminate against competitors, and stifle innovation.

"Any open-access rule should be the product of an FCC rule making, with the benefit of an open debate from all parties, that governs actions of all market participants," Bliley said in a statement distributed at a congressional hearing.

The FTC is set to require AOL and Time Warner to make legally binding their commitment to open cable lines, people familiar with that review have said. The FCC has asked the companies numerous questions on the matter and could take a similar approach. The FCC has so far declined to adopt rules that would regulate cable lines when used to provide Internet access.

At a House Telecommunications subcommittee hearing on interactive television, several members of Congress told AOL chief executive Steve Case and Time Warner chief executive Gerald Levin that they must ensure all of their assets--cable, instant messaging and interactive television--are open to competitors.

"I think we're very eager to see what impact this entity will have on consumer choice," You've got 
Time Warner said Rep. Billy Tauzin, chairman of the subcommittee and a Louisiana Republican. "Will consumers have genuine choice?"

Case and Levin, in written testimony, sought to allay legislator worries, assuring them that the interactive-TV market is just developing and competitors will thrive.

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