Justices vault pole case back to FCC

Questions remain over line between Internet, cable

WASHINGTON — Several perplexed U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday hinted that the Federal Communications Commission may have to figure out whether the Internet is to be lumped in with traditional cable services or considered by itself.

The question came up as the cable and utility industries went head-to-head before the high court over whether cablers should be required to pay market rates when borrowing utility poles to hook customers up to the Internet.

When using the same poles to provide traditional TV service, cablers take advantage of regulated rates set by the FCC. The agency says such fees should also be extended to cablers providing Internet and phone service.

Last year, however, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the FCC, stating that Internet and phone service is a different matter altogether.

On Tuesday, several of the robes said the wisest course may be to remand the case back to the FCC, so that the agency can specifically state whether the Internet is part and parcel of regular cable, or conversely, a telecommunications service. Once the FCC rules on that issue, the appropriate rate for using a utility pole can be determined.

As expected, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was not present during the argument. She holds stock in such companies as AT&T and MCI.

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