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AT&T cries foul over ads

The phone company accuses cable operators of suppressing free speech by not airing its ads for national video franchises.

AT&T has accused cable operators of stifling public debate on the issue of nationwide video franchises by refusing to air its advertisements.

On Monday, the nation's biggest phone company sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission charging that cable companies were trying to skew the political debate on the topic.

"That these dominant cable operators would even attempt to manipulate the political process in this manner shows just how far the current regulatory regime has departed from basic norms of market competition and free and fair debate," AT&T said in its complaint.

Cable companies such as Time Warner Cable were quick to respond, saying they are under no obligation to carry competitors' advertisements. Comcast said it decided not to run the ads because AT&T's claims were false and unsubstantiated. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) earlier this month issued a report slamming the phone companies for distorting the facts.

"Instead of whining about their false and misleading ads being rejected, the phone monopolies should withdraw their ads and start telling the truth," said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for NCTA. "They've played fast and loose with the truth for so long that they've forgotten they could have been competing in the video business for the last 10 years instead of waiting for special favors."

AT&T's complaint to the FCC comes just as telephone companies make significant headway in their quest to push through a federal law that would grant phone companies the right to offer TV service to millions of Americans without having to negotiate separate contract agreements with local governments. On Tuesday, the House Commerce Committee released a draft bill that included provisions for a national video franchise.

Phone companies argue that the current video franchise process is too slow and deprives millions of people a choice of which company provides their TV service.

Cable companies vehemently oppose such legislation, arguing that phone companies should have to go through the same process that they did in order to obtain local franchise agreements.

The war of the advertisements is likely to rage on as the NCTA on Tuesday launches its own ads, which it claims will point out the phone companies' broken promises.