The six-month trial, to be conducted beginning in November in Boulder, Colorado, will explore the technical issues surrounding multiple Internet service providers (ISPs) operating on the same high-speed, or "broadband," cable network.
The issue, known as "open access" or sometimes "forced access," has simmered for 18 months, pitting ISPs such as America Online and what was then MindSpring Enterprises against cable operators such as AT&T, with federal policymakers caught in the middle.
The cable industry called for marketplace-driven deals, not regulatory mandated requirements. AT&T struck a deal last year with MindSpring--now part of Earthlink--one of the nation's largest dial-up Internet providers, to work together on a broadband truce.
The remaining groundwork was laid earlier this year when AT&T extended its agreement with Excite@Home, the nation's largest high-speed Net access company, which Ma Bell largely controls. The previous exclusive deal between Excite@Home and its cable partners caused concern among consumer groups who feared the companies would dominate the broadband market. Ma Bell extended its pact with Excite@Home through 2008, promising to make Excite@Home the preferred ISP while opening its networks to others.
As part of its effort to test third-party use of its cable network, AT&T sent letters to 10 national and regional ISPs seeking their participation. AT&T solicited the involvement of AOL, Dell.net, Juno, MindSpring, MSN, RMI.net, Yahoo and Denver News, a unit of Denver Post-Tribune. Excite@Home and WorldNet, which are owned or controlled by AT&T, also will participate.
"This trial continues AT&T's leadership in the area of broadband choice," Dan Somers, president and chief executive officer of AT&T Broadband, said in a statement. "We were the first company in our industry to commit to choice, we were first to agree to a set of principles with an unaffiliated ISP to provide connectivity, and now we're first to commit to a technical trial."
AOL and Time Warner announced similar open access plans earlier this year.