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GTE, AOL align for open access fight

Sources say GTE and America Online are expected to organize a high-profile demonstration next week to prove that giving ISPs access to cable networks is possible and practical.

GTE and America Online are expected to organize a high-profile demonstration next week to prove that giving Internet service providers access to cable networks is both possible and practical, sources said.

The effort is designed to undercut arguments from AT&T and other cable companies that claim allowing ISPs to use their cable networks is technically infeasible, according to people familiar with the plans.

"What they're saying is that to operate the cable modem service, you do not need to have just a single Internet access provider," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Virginia), who said he intends to participate in an event introducing the demonstration next week.

Cable companies like AT&T and Time Warner require their high-speed Internet customers to use an affiliated ISP, such as Excite@Home or Road Runner. AOL and GTE have been among the leading proponents of an effort to open cable networks to other ISPs, in much the same way that telephone networks are available to any dial-up ISP.

The open access movement was given new life last week when a federal judge ruled that officials in Portland, Oregon, had the legal right to force cable companies to open their networks to outside ISPs.

In the wake of that decision, AT&T and Excite@Home executives said that their critics had not taken into account the technical hurdles involved in allowing cable open access. The infrastructure and the developing standards weren't designed with such connections in mind, the executives said.

"We'd probably have to have some changes to the [new cable modem] standard at a minimum, software changes and possibly in the way the chipsets are built," said Milo Medin, Excite@Home's chief technical officer. "It would be a multiyear effort to redefine the standard."

In response, GTE and AOL will hold a high-profile event in Washington next week to specifically target these claims. The firms reportedly plan to link AOL's Internet service to a GTE-provided cable network to demonstrate that open access is possible, sources said.

GTE and AOL declined to comment on the plans.

The companies are inviting key political figures to the event, including Reps. Boucher and Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), both sponsors of legislation that would require open cable access on a national level.

The demonstration will also help support the contention of consumer groups, who have long said that cable open access is not as difficult as some companies have made it out to be.

"For a company who has the motivation to solve the technical problems, open access is feasible," said the Media Access Project's Cheryl Leanza. "GTE obviously has the motivation to make this work."

GTE, while largely known as a local phone company, also owns its own small cable TV network that operates in parts of California, Florida, and Hawaii. It serves about 102,000 cable customers.

The event may be more of a sweeping statement to the cable industry rather than a business deal, however. It is not expected to be linked to a broader high-speed Internet business alliance, such as AOL's agreements to offer its Net service over SBC Communications and Bell Atlantic digital subscriber lines (DSL).

Cable open access has already been demonstrated on a limited scale by other companies. MindSpring Enterprises offers high-speed service in Montgomery, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia, though a small cable company called Knology Holdings.

News.com's Corey Grice contributed to this report.