No need for AT&T to share ‘Net

Teleco retains rights to its high-speed cabling

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that local officials can’t force AT&T to open up its high-speed cable Internet networks to competitors.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision that gave Portland, Ore.-area officials the authority to force AT&T to lease space on its cable-based Internet networks to competing Internet service providers such as America Online and Earthlink.

The federal judges ruled Thursday that Portland officials don’t have jurisdiction over AT&T’s cable Internet business.

In the decision, the federal appellate court judges determined that Internet access should be defined as a “telecommunications service” under the 1996 Telecommunications Act rather than a cable television service, which would be subject to local control.

But terming cable Net access a “telecommunications service” means that it should be regulated under the same rules that force telephone companies to share their networks with rivals, AT&T opponents said.

“We’re pleased with today’s ruling because it clarifies decisively the limits of local authority when it comes to the provision of high-speed Internet access over cable,” said AT&T general counsel Jim Cicconi. “Now that the court has made clear Congress’ intent to bar ordinances like the one enacted by Portland, AT&T and other cable companies will be able to get on with investments that will bring advanced services to millions of Americans.”

The ruling may not have much of an effect.

AT&T in December adopted a plan giving rivals access to its high-speed connections after June 2002, when an exclusive agreement with Excite@Home expires. Earthlink backs the plan. Then, in January America Online and Time Warner said they were combining, prompting the latter to shift its position on access and promise to open its network to rivals.

The 9th Circuit ruling will only apply in that court’s jurisdiction, which includes California, Oregon and Washington, among other Western states. Los Angeles and several other cities are considering open access laws.

Portland city officials said they have not yet decided whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Reuters contributed to this report.)

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