High Court to Decide Cable Internet Fight


The U.S. Supreme Court said Friday that it will decide one of the most controversial debates in the growing business of high-speed Internet service\u001F: whether cable operators must carry competing service providers over their broadband networks.

Cable operators, Internet service providers and consumers activists have waged a bitter fight over the issue for six years.

Cable systems have fought to block competing providers from their high-speed Internet lines, which can be used to deliver video, telephone and other digital services that compete with cable's most lucrative business segments.

In 2002 the FCC decided not to impose such a regulation during the early days of the broadband rollout, even though it claimed authority to force “open access” on cable operators. FCC officials feared cable operators might delay the massive infrastructure upgrades necessary to add high-speed lines across the country.

Angered by the FCC’s delay, ISPs and consumer activists convinced the San Francisco Federal appeals court that the FCC was wrong to hold off on regulation now. They say cable operators will charge exorbitant prices for broadband service and block Web video streaming unless access requirements are imposed.

The lower court sided with cable’s critics in October 2003, arguing that cable Internet service is bound by the same access requirements as telephone companies. Consequently, the FCC did not have discretion to wait and see if cable companies use control over their platforms to block Web users' access to rival content before issuing any access mandate.

The FCC and the Justice Department appealed the decision. The San Francisco Court has stayed enforcement of its decision until the Supreme Court appeal was resolved.

The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and other consumer groups said they were disappointed that the Supreme Court decided to hear the FCC’s appeal.

“If the Supreme Court rules against Internet open access, cable companies will be able to block content at will for political or financial reasons,” CDD lawyers said.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, on the other hand, praised the Justices’ decision to take the case. “High-speed Internet connections are not telephones,” he said. Upholding the San Francisco court’s ruling “would have grave consequences for the future and availability of high-speed Internet connections in this country.”

The cable industry also was happy for another chance to make its case in court. “Establishing a deregulatory environment for cable modem service is critical to the universal deployment in the U.S. of broadband services, including emerging services” such as Internet telephony, said Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.