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SBC unfair on high-speed Net, ISPs charge

A group of Internet service providers in California files a complaint with regulators that charges SBC Communications' Pacific Bell with unfairly trying to quash competition.

A group of Internet service providers in California filed a complaint with regulators Thursday that charges SBC Communications' Pacific Bell with unfairly trying to quash competition in the high-speed Net market.

The complaint caps months of grumbling from ISPs, which say SBC has been favoring its own ISP and is forcing service providers to sign insulting--and they say potentially damaging--new contracts to keep offering DSL (digital subscriber line) service.

Now the California ISP Association is asking regulators to step in and force SBC to let its own customers move to independent ISPs more easily. They're also asking regulators to prevent the phone company from turning off high-speed connections for ISPs that don't sign the controversial new agreements.

"SBC, we're alleging, is providing its own affiliated ISP with preferential treatment, discriminating against hundreds of local and regional ISPs," said Andrew Ulmer, an attorney for the ISP Association. "It really is a set of unfair practices."

An SBC spokesman said the company does work closely with the ISPs. But SBC is changing its network to support more than just traditional Internet access and needs to change its relationships with ISPs as a result, he said.

"We clearly are working with the ISPs, and we intend to include them in our vision of the future," said John Britton, the SBC spokesman. He said the phone giant does not give its own Net service provider affiliate any preferential treatment.

The tussle between SBC and the independents is just one facet of a widening struggle for control of the broadband Net. In the dial-up access world, most ISPs were fairly content simply to provide basic Internet connections, while giants such as America Online and MSN tried to link content and connections with only intermittent business success.

But as high-speed Net connections become more popular, the big network and media companies are increasingly trying to work together closely to create such services as video-on-demand or music subscriptions. SBC plans to use its DSL connections to offer services such as these even to people who use other ISPs for a basic connection; this is one of the plans that angers smaller providers.

SBC says new technology that allows DSL connections to be used both for a connection to an independent ISP and to SBC's own subscription services will increase choices of services for consumers. The company will also offer connections to other media companies, so that a single Net connection might be used for the Web, TV-like video and music from separate companies, it said.

"The access lines will have the capability of delivering many more services," Britton said. "No one has the exclusive right to that line."

The ISPs say they hope they can win some protections in the California market. They say Pacific Bell's own ISP is able to get DSL lines faster, and with less hassle, than any of the independents can.

"There are a hundred independent ISPs in (the association) and just about all of them have had problems with SBC," said Dave Baker, an EarthLink attorney who also serves as the ISP Association's chairman. "SBC needs to provide service in a fair and nondiscriminatory basis."

The ISPs also say that Pacific Bell makes it too difficult to switch ISPs once someone has signed up for SBC's high-speed Net service, with any changes resulting in weeks without service for the customer.

The complaint also appears designed to provide the ISPs some new leverage in negotiating with SBC over new contracts, however.

The complaint "should at least force Pacific Bell and (its affiliated ISP) to sit down at the negotiating table with California ISPs," InReach Internet Chief Operating Officer Lisa Bickford said in a statement accompanying the filing.