Publicly held telecommunications giant GTE filed a lawsuit against TCI and Comcast yesterday in an attempt to gain access to the two companies’ Excite@Home Internet service.
Calling the suit an “anti-trust” action, GTE is alleging that TCI, the cable division of AT&T, and Comcast have refused to allow other telecommunications providers to market broadband Internet service to TCI and Comcast customers.
The suit is the latest volley in a battle that GTE and America Online have been waging with the cable companies over the exclusivity of the Excite@Home Internet service owned by TCI and Comcast and offered to about 50 percent of U.S. cable operators. Excite@Home is one of two broadband Internet services available via cable lines, competing with the Road Runner service owned by Time Warner and another group of cable operators.
The company began as @Home when a group of cable operators launched the service several years ago. It was renamed Excite@Home after @Home bought Excite earlier this year. The service uses cable TV systems to provide high-speed Internet access to consumers and businesses.
The GTE-@Home feud is also a manifestation of the larger debate raging in communities and at the federal government level over who controls the cable lines. In many communities, telephone and alternative television providers have lobbied local governments and courts to force Excite@Home to give up monopoly control of Internet service on its owners’ cable lines.
Excite@Home, backed by a group of leading computer and Internet companies and the Federal Communications Commission, argues for a market-driven solution to the dispute.
Seeking Higher Authorities
GTE now wants the federal court in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to determine who ultimately controls cable customers’ access to Internet services. Excite@Home has already asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a Portland, Oregon court decision that mandates that all Internet service providers be given access to privately-owned cable lines.
GTE claims that Excite@Home’s cable owners “illegally force their cable modem subscribers to buy the @Home ISP service.” Customers who choose to use a different Internet service provider, such as GTE, AOL, or MindSpring, must still pay for the @Home service, GTE charges.
“Today, Americans can choose among thousands of ISPs when they sign up for Internet access with the telephone companies,” GTE General Counsel William Barr said. “But in the high-speed Internet access world of TCI and Comcast, consumers don’t have a choice. They are forced to accept @Home as their only on-ramp to the Internet.”
In addition to illegally tying their own Internet service to cable access, GTE alleges, the cable companies have formed “unlawful exclusive dealing arrangements” and “have entered into a concerted refusal to deal by agreeing that they will not provide high-speed data transport services over their cable facilities to unaffiliated ISPs.” Such agreements constitute illegal monopolistic actions, GTE claims.
The companies have argued in the past that allowing multiple Internet service providers to use their wires is technologically complicated and would restrict the cable companies’ ability to deliver their various services. However, GTE claims that it has demonstrated an affordable, technologically feasible way to share the cable lines but the cable companies continue to refuse to share them.