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AOL in crosshairs of conservative group

The online giant is under attack from a former senator who wants to throw a wrench in AOL's push for broadband cable access for ISPs.

America Online's campaign to open up cable TV networks for its Internet service has unexpectedly landed it in the same political camp as the Sierra Club.

The two organizations don't have much in common, but each has drawn the ire of a former senator who heads a conservative Washington lobbying group dubbed Frontiers of Freedom.

The Frontiers group is launching a counteroffensive against AOL's "open access" campaign next week, with a press conference scheduled for Monday and a slick anti-AOL Web site already online.

"AOL is now calling for the heavy hand of government to stifle competitors and to regulate access to the Internet," the group writes on its site, soliciting support for the campaign.

"If you're confident in the benevolence of AOL and the competence of Big Government to make these decisions about the Internet for you, that's fine. But if you're not, it's time to learn more," the site reads.

For the last several months, AOL has led a group of ISPs and telephone companies in lobbying Congress and federal regulators to open up cable TV broadband networks to outside ISPs.

Under today's rules, cable companies like AT&T or Time Warner can offer high-speed Internet service through their cable wires, but require users to subscribe to their affiliated ISP services--such as @Home or Road Runner.

The OpenNet Coalition, lead by AOL, wants users to be able to sign up for service over high-speed cable wires without having to pay additionally for the cable company's ISP. To date, the group has had little luck in selling the Federal Communications Commission, and is now working to gain Congressional support.

Some in Congress have been swayed by AOL's argument. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Virginia)--who hails from the same state as AOL's headquarters--said this week he may introduce a bill in April aimed at ensuring "parity of regulation" between cable companies and telephone companies.

That measure would be part of a much broader bill that encompasses other Internet issues such as privacy and the speed of broadband rollouts, Boucher said.

OpenNet Coalition co-director Rich Bond, a former Republican National Committee president, said Boucher's tack is unlikely to yield much fruit, however.

"That's not necessarily our vehicle," he said. "I don't think it's going to be what we need to fix this problem."

The Frontiers of Freedom attack is unlikely to derail the open access campaign, Bond added.

"We don't know who's funding this very specific attack on AOL," Bond said. "But [they] are clearly operating on the fringes."

The leader of the Frontiers group, former Sen. Malcom Wallop (R-Wyoming), served as publisher Steve Forbes' campaign manager in the 1996 presidential race.