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AOL launches rival's high-speed Net service

AOL Time Warner kicks off high-speed Internet service from EarthLink, signaling the first of a series of planned launches for high-speed Net service throughout Time Warner Cable.

AOL Time Warner quietly launched high-speed Internet service from rival EarthLink in Columbus, Ohio, last week, a step made in compliance with federal regulations.

It signals the first of a series of planned launches for high-speed Internet services throughout Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable network. The company plans to flip the switch in Syracuse, N.Y., imminently, but a representative declined to provide a date.

Time Warner Cable will make a high-speed version of AOL available once EarthLink service in each region launches.

"Order fulfillment and processing is in place," said Mike Luftman, a Time Warner Cable spokesman. "We will go on to continue an aggressive launch scheduled for this year."

Luftman would not say when its top 20 markets would offer EarthLink and AOL.

As the primary condition in approving AOL's $147 billion acquisition of Time Warner, the Federal Trade Commission imposed regulations requiring the company to launch EarthLink service before AOL in each market. The FTC also required the company to offer service from two additional Internet providers within 90 days of offering AOL.

Time Warner Cable has an agreement with ISP Juno Online Services for carriage on its cable network. However, the company recently lost another partner when High Speed Access pulled out of its agreement earlier this month. No replacement has been named.

The FTC's conditions highlight its attempt to force open AOL Time Warner's cable network to competitors. Critics and competitors such as Disney lobbied the government aggressively to impose restrictions on the merger for fear that a combined AOL Time Warner would favor its own content on its cable systems.

Cable networks operate as monopolies in specific markets and geographical areas. Content companies such as Disney feared AOL Time Warner would unfairly establish financial hurdles for competitors to develop interactive content for carriage on Time Warner Cable.

Subscribers in Columbus now have a choice between EarthLink, AOL or Road Runner, the high-speed ISP owned by Time Warner Cable. Luftman added that AOL Time Warner will continue to offer Road Runner despite the parent company's ownership of two ISPs.

Luftman said the company did not announce the Columbus launch last week in light of the recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, saying it would have been "inappropriate."