RealTime IT News

Open Access Cable Trials Begin

America Online Inc. and Time Warner Inc. have chosen Columbus, Ohio, as the first test site for their upcoming open-access trials.

The two firms signed an agreement in February, which set the framework for Time Warner to offer consumers a choice of rival Internet service providers, including America Online and Road Runner access, over its broadband cable systems.

In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission responding to questions about their merger, AOL and Time Warner said they are cooperating in a technical and operational trial conducted using Time Warner's Columbus high-speed data cable facilities.

The Ohio trial represents a big first step by the two companies to provide details about how competitive cable access on an "open access" platform could be transformed into a viable broadband system.

When the two companies signed the original deal, Steve Case, AOL chairman and chief executive officer said the agreement was a testimonial of its support for open access in the marketplace.

"Choice, competition and innovation have been the factors driving the Internet's explosive growth to date," Case said. "With this framework, we are poised to make it easier, more attractive and more affordable than ever for consumers to sign up for high-speed, always-on Internet service, with all of the benefits that has to offer."

Gerald Levin, Time Warner chairman and chief executive officer, echoed Case's commitment to competitive cable services.

"We know Time Warner consumers want choice and innovation in cable Internet service, and we are going to deliver it to them, access to AOL as well as to a variety of other ISPs," Levin said.

The FCC scheduled a public hearing on the proposed merger, currently valued at about $133 billion. Open access is one of the subject's set to be discussed at the July 27 meeting.

Analysts cited AOL's desire to gain access to the media giant's cable pipeline as one of the primary reasons for the merger, because it provides AOL with access to a nationwide broadband pipeline.

Critics of the merger originally believed that AOL and Time Warner statements only give lip service to open access. The Ohio tests have forced the groups to modify their opinion of the deal, but the groups still caution that open access has a ways to go before it is a competitive reality.

Dave Baker, EarthLink Network Inc. vice president of law and public policy, Tuesday testified on behalf of the openNET Coalition before the House Judiciary Committee.

Baker urged Congress to quickly establish an enforceable national open access policy to ensure consumers have a choice of multiple ISPs regardless of whether they use digital subscriber line or cable broadband transport.

Baker said that a national policy was critical to ensure that consumers have the same competitive choices in broadband Internet access as they have in narrowband services.

"The bottom line is that competition in ISP services drives innovation and improves quality," Baker said. "If consumers are able to choose the ISP they want, not the one that cable wants to force them to use, the Internet will remain a vibrant source of information. If not, the Internet will stagnate under cable companies' anti-competitive grip."