Telecommunications firm GTE is suing Comcast and AT&T on antitrust grounds, charging that the two cable companies are illegally monopolizing high-speed cable Internet networks.
The claim is just one piece of a much larger campaign by GTE, America Online and other Internet service providers (ISPs) trying to win the right to offer their services directly over cable networks. Today, only affiliated ISPs like Excite@Home or Road Runner can offer Net access over cable networks in cooperation with cable companies.
The ISPs have won several battles in local areas like Portland, Ore., but have failed to convince Congress or federal regulators to force cable operators to open their networks to ISPs nationwide.
Comcast's statement today marks the first public move in the antitrust case since the suit was filed in October. Comcast in court filings accused GTE of trying to use the antitrust suit to block competition to the phone company's own high-speed Internet service, called digital subscriber line (DSL).
"GTE and other telephone companies are attempting to block the cable industry's investment in competitive high-speed Internet service," David Juliano, general manager of Comcast Online, said in a statement accompanying the court filing. "In this proceeding, GTE is trying yet again to use the courts to slow down competition."
GTE defended its motives, saying the lawsuit was legitimately aimed at boosting competition in broadband markets.
"The charges are ludicrous--that we're trying to slow the spread of high-speed Internet access to consumers," GTE spokeswoman Briana Gowning said. "We're trying to protect non-discriminatory access for our ISP, and all the other ISPs out there."
If it reaches the trial stage, the lawsuit could do much to reshape the rules governing the high-speed Net market. But the competitive landscape already has changed somewhat since GTE first filed its complaints.
AT&T announced early this month that it would open its high-speed networks to competing service provider MindSpring Enterprises, once its exclusive contracts with Excite@Home expire. Though details were few, AT&T clearly struck the deal to soothe concerns of regulators and legislators worried about the telecommunications giant's growing control over cable networks, analysts said.
The company says that deal wasn't aimed at bolstering its defense in court, however.
"We believe the GTE suit was without merit when it was filed, and that is still true today," AT&T spokeswoman Rochelle Cohen said.
GTE said that the MindSpring deal wouldn't take AT&T out of its antitrust sights.
"[That deal] isn't affecting what we're doing," GTE's Gowing said. "They're not taking about non-discriminatory access. We're looking for equal treatment."
No court dates have been set for the lawsuit, which is expected to continue well into next year.
But while the court process moves through its early stages, the cable access fight is still playing out in cities and counties across the United States.
Culver City, Calif., and Henrico County, Va., both ordered AT&T to open its networks to competing Internet service providers this week as a condition of approving the company's merger with MediaOne.
An appeals court in Oregon is still mulling the issue of whether individual local governments have the legal right to force AT&T to open its networks.