RealTime IT News

EarthLink Racing to Open Access Finish Line

The trials are over but the real test for open access is about to begin as Atlanta-based EarthLink becomes the first independent ISP to roll out its high-speed Internet service on Time Warner Cable's network. It also means that AOL Time Warner will likely be launching its own high speed cable service on EarthLink's heels.

EarthLink will begin supplying cable broadband access to Time Warner Cable subscribers in Columbus, Ohio and Syracuse, N.Y., in September. The companies also said they expect EarthLink's service will be available in a "substantial" number of Time Warner Cable's operations before the end of the year.

The service has been more than eight months in coming. AOL Time Warner, parent of Time Warner Cable, cut a deal with EarthLink last November in an attempt to make an end run around the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and satisfy that body's open access requirements in order to finally complete the America Online-Time Warner merger.

The FTC's conditions require that AOL Time Warner allow at least one competitor to offer high speed Internet access over its cable network in a market before AOL can offer its own service across in that market. It also requires that AOL open the network to at least two more competitors within 90 days of offering its own service. It's a good bet that Juno Online -- soon to become United Online (UOL) following the completion of NetZero's acquisition of Juno -- will be one of those companies. Five months after EarthLink cut its deal with AOL, Juno sealed a similar arrangement. And Juno has already conducted cable trials with Time Warner in Columbus.

Open access discussions made little headway until the FTC got involved. The parties had been wrangling over who would be responsible for important details like billing, technical support and customer service. While details were scarce, Juno apparently gave Time Warner the go-ahead to handle billing and technical support for its cable customers in order to seal its open access agreement. That gives Time Warner Cable direct access to the company's customers. Juno will still handle customer service. It is unknown what arrangements EarthLink made to seal its deal, but the terms were likely similar.

Time Warner Cable Ventures President Christopher P. Bogart Monday appeared to confirm that Juno, along with High Speed Access Corp. will be the first independent ISPs to join EarthLink on Time Warner Cable's network.

"This is an important step in our plan to offer a choice of ISPs to Time Warner Cable customers," Bogart said. "We have submitted our agreements with Juno and High Speed Access for approval by the Federal Trade Commission and are eager to make them, along with AOL and EarthLink, available to our customers as quickly as possible. This expanded choice will be a great benefit to all our customers."

While both EarthLink and Juno are recognized brands nationwide, HSA is a relative unknown. It was formed in 1997 through the merger of two local ISPs: HSANet of St. Mary's, Maryland, and CATV.net of Maysville, Kentucky. It has since received more than $120 million in investments from Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures and Charter Communications. It boasted more than 100,000 cable broadband subscribers in January.

The pact between EarthLink and Time Warner gives EarthLink the ability to deliver branded broadband services across all three major broadband technologies -- cable, DSL and satellite. In addition, EarthLink has reached agreements with Comcast Cable Communications Inc., Cox Communications Inc. and AT&T Broadband to test its high-speed services over each company's cable infrastructure in anticipation of definitive agreements.

"Cable is an important part of EarthLink's overall broadband strategy, so we're very encouraged by the progress we've made in preparing to launch our service over Time Warner Cable's networks," said Mike Lunsford, executive vice president of broadband services at EarthLink. "AOL Time Warner is backing its commitment to offer multiple ISPs with action. They've been an exemplary partner and thanks to that, EarthLink subscribers will soon have another way to get to the high-speed Internet access they crave."