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Congress takes aim at cable Net access

Two congressmen are targeting AT&T's cable Internet business with legislation that would force it to open its network to outside Internet service providers like America Online.

Two congressmen are taking direct aim at AT&T's cable Internet business with legislation that would force the company to open its network to outside Internet service providers like America Online.

Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) and Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) introduced measures today that would require AT&T and other cable companies to give outside ISPs access to their broadband Internet infrastructure--a rule that AT&T has said would undermine its move into cable phone and Net markets.

The pair of bills also would prod the big local phone companies to speed up their rollout of high-speed digital subscriber line (DSL) service, in return for removing some of the restrictions on the telcos' data businesses.

The cable "open access" issue has been a controversial topic in Washington since AT&T announced its merger with cable giant Tele-Communications Incorporated last year, and now is even important as the phone giant plans to buy cable operator MediaOne Group.

Under existing rules, AT&T and other cable companies which provide high-speed cable Internet access require their subscribers to use an affiliated ISP, such as the @Home Network or Road Runner services.

Led by America Online, ISPs have protested, arguing that they should be able to reach cable customers directly--similar to the system which allows dial-up users to sign up for AOL without also having to use their telephone company's ISP service.

Under the banner of a lobbying group dubbed the OpenNet Coalition, the ISPs have pressed Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to require cable companies to open their high-speed networks. To date, however, their efforts have met with little success.

Today's bill marks the first real political progress that AOL and its allies have made on the issue. A Senate committee debated the issue last month, but produced only a commitment to study the idea further.

Boucher and Goodlatte--both of whom represent AOL's home state of Virginia--today outlined the danger they said rests in allowing cable companies to link their access and ISP services.

"ISPs are severely threatened by the deployment by cable television companies of broadband Internet transport connections which also bundle affiliated Internet access services," said Boucher in a statement accompanying the introduction of the bill. "The legislation we are offering today assures...that all Internet transport platforms in the future will be open, much as telephone company transport platforms are open today."

Introduced just a day after AT&T agreed to purchase a second major cable company--a move that has already drawn considerable concern in official Washington--the bill is likely to be viewed in the context of AT&T's increasing dominance over the cable industry.

But the company points to the fact that other broadband options, such as DSL, wireless cable, and satellite feeds are quickly being rolled out, providing other means of competition to the cable networks. The FCC itself has put off ruling on the issue, citing increasing competition from other broadband sources, AT&T representatives note.

"What's relevant on this issue is that there are going to be multiple facilities, not the specific size of one company's footprint in one specific facility," said Blair Levin, a former FCC staffer who now represents AT&T-controlled @Home in Washington.

The Internet bill also would prod the big local telephone companies to speed their rollout of high-speed DSL Internet service, in return for reducing some of the regulation imposed on their data services.

The measures would require the phone companies to submit a plan to state regulators in which they would detail plans to roll out broadband services "as soon as economically and technically feasible." The companies would be held to their plans until another broadband service provider offers service in the area, or until they are able to serve 70 percent of households in a given telephone exchange.

In return, the bill would remove all price caps or restrictions on the telcos' broadband services, as long as the carrier provides potential competitors with the ability to resell its local DSL lines at a "reasonable" price.

The measure also would remove federal rules that now prevent Baby Bell companies like Bell Atlantic or SBC Communications from operating long distance data networks, or Internet backbones.