Most cable companies require their high-speed Internet customers to subscribe to an affiliated ISP, such as Excite@Home or Road Runner, to get Internet access. GTE and AOL have been among the chief critics of this policy, arguing in court and in Congress that cable networks should be open to all ISPs.
"A lot of the rhetoric has been directed at the idea that this is technically difficult to do," said GTE executive vice president Bob Barr in a press conference today. "It isn't. It's peanuts."
The two companies said they have been running a trial project in Clearwater, Florida, for the last two months, in which AOL and CompuServe were both allowed to link into GTE's cable networks.
The trials gave consumers the ability to sign up for AOL directly over cable networks without first going through GTE's ISP subsidiary.
According to GTE, the companies were able to install this capability in a geographic area serving 80,000 potential customers with an investment of about $60,000. The trial included four different cable modem platforms, including one that has not yet been released in retail markets, the company said.
"We wanted to make sure this is absolutely bulletproof with respect to future technology," said Rick Wilson, president of GTE's cable TV division.
The trial project does not yet mark a larger business alliance between GTE and AOL, which has signed deals with SBC Communications and Bell Atlantic to carry its service over their high-speed digital subscriber line (DSL) services.
But that may change soon. GTE officials said that business plans were being drafted to open up the company's full cable system to outside ISPs, and would likely be completed within the next few months.
"We plan to continue to operate as an open access cable provider," Barr said. Persuading other cable companies to open their networks will likely require action from federal regulators, he added.
GTE has about 102,000 cable subscribers in Florida, California, and Hawaii.
The move comes as courts have given the "open access" drive gained new momentum. A federal judge ruled early this month that the city of Portland had the right to require AT&T to open up its networks as a condition of transferring cable franchise licenses.