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Supreme Court to hear Internet cable access case

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider whether cable companies must open their high-speed lines to rival Internet providers.

Justices will hear two cases challenging a lower ruling forcing cable companies to share their lines. That October 2003 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has been stayed pending the outcome of appeals.

At issue is whether cable-based broadband is a “telecommunications service” that makes it subject to strict Federal Communications Commission rules requiring phone companies to provide access to independent providers.

It is a case that pits government and cable interests in spurring growth of the technology against consumer interests in lower prices.

“If customers have a choice in high-speed providers, that will mean better service, greater availability, and lower prices,” said Dave Baker, a vice president at Atlanta-based Earthlink, a telephone-based Internet provider.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which has invested $90 billion since 1996 to develop broadband service, disagrees. “Any type of government regulation to require cable operators to form partnerships would only deter investment, innovation and competition,” said spokesman Brian Dietz.

The Federal Communications Commission voted in March 2002 to exempt cable companies from strict rules to stir more investment. The FCC reasoned that high-speed Internet over cable was just an “information service,” making it different from phone companies.

But the FCC ruling left phone companies, which offer rival digital subscriber lines, at a disadvantage. Though they must pay for upgrades, they’re subject to more regulation, including a much-debated rule requiring them to lease their infrastructure to rivals.

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell applauded the Supreme Court’s move to hear the case.

“The 9th Circuit’s decision would have grave consequences for the future and availability of high-speed Internet connections in this country,” he said in a statement. “High-speed Internet connections are not telephones.”

The appeal is being brought by the FCC and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in two appeals. They argue that a 1984 Supreme Court ruling requires courts to defer to a federal agency’s expertise in deciding the best policy.

Most computer users access the Internet through dial-up services, but broadband connections, through phone and cable lines and satellites, are faster. Broadband, which costs about $40 to $50 a month, depending on location, also features video conferencing.

“If the Supreme Court rules against Internet open access, cable companies will be able to block content at will for political or financial reasons, and deny the public the ability to choose among competing Internet providers,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project in Washington, D.C.,