By creating an appearance of competition among cable-based Internet service providers, Time Warner's agreements with EarthLink and Juno Online Services increase the likelihood that the Federal Trade Commission will approve the Time Warner-America Online merger.
The situation with cable ISPs is analogous to that of telephone service providers: for several years now telephone carriers have been obligated to "unbundle" services to allow competitors to offer services on the same phone lines. No such unbundling regulations exist for cable providers, hence the FTC's concern that smaller providers be allowed access to cable lines.
However, agreements such as the one between Time Warner and EarthLink do little to guarantee such access. Those kinds of guarantees can only come through government incentives. The Federal Communications Commission has not forced the issue, and so the FTC is trying to pick up the slack by withholding its approval of the Time Warner-AOL merger.
The FCC is notoriously sluggish about implementing new regulations. And with a new administration about to enter the White House, the makeup of the agency may change as well, further slowing serious incentives for a cybergiant such as Time Warner-AOL to open up access to its cable channels. As things stand, Time Warner, or, for that matter AT&T, has little reason to open its infrastructure to outside competitors.
The agreement between Time Warner and EarthLink is a step in the right direction. However, the deal consists largely of an agreement to test the necessary technology to allow competitive access, which isn't the same thing as providing that access in a meaningful way.
Real competition will be the result of stronger government incentives--if the government decides to provide any--and that won't happen sooner than one year from now.
(For a related commentary on cable lines being opened to ISPs, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)
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