WASHINGTON (CNNfn) - The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to force local telephone companies to share their lines with high-speed Internet providers, paving the way for consumers to get online connections at lower prices.
By a unanimous vote, the FCC ordered such dominant local exchange carriers as Bell Atlantic Corp. (BEL) and SBC Communications Inc. (SBC) to begin providing shared joint access to the high-frequency portion of existing local telephone lines to upstart digital subscriber line providers.
Currently, customers seeking high-speed access from a company other than their local provider must order and pay for a second telephone line into their home or business.
DSL lines are becoming increasingly popular among both residential and business customers because they are capable of transmitting data up to 120 times faster than 56-kilobit dial-up modems.
In addition to eliminating the cost for that second line, the new order will prevent customers from having to change their phone number to obtain access to a competitive carrier's high-speed Internet service while encouraging further investments by competitive data providers, FCC officials noted.
Commission Chairman William Kennard said the decision "results in greater choices at lower prices for high-speed Internet access."
DSL providers prepare to charge
In arguing for access to shared lines, independent DSL providers complained that several local providers, such as Bell Atlantic, are currently able offer high-speed access over their existing lines, creating an unbalanced competitive situation.
"With enforcement and compliance of this order, companies like [ours] are now able to compete aggressively and with greater parity with incumbent carriers in the provision of DSL services to American consumers," Michael Malaga, chairman and chief executive officer of NorthPoint Communications, a San Francisco-based DSL provider, said in a statement.
One DSL executive even suggested the new shared line system would aid local exchange carriers' battle to provide long distance service as well.
"This is about embracing choice and will be a winning scenario for both consumers and phone companies," Dhruv Khanna, an executive vice president at Covad Communications, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based DSL provider, said in a statement.
"As the phone companies open up their networks for broadband choice, they will improve their chances to offer long distance services in their territories -- a win-win for all," he said.
Several items still must be worked out, including how quickly such shared access will take place, what guidelines companies must follow when switching customers from their current service and how local exchange carriers will be compensated for sharing their lines.
The FCC's official order outlining the ground rules for a shared line system should emerge in the next few weeks. But according to those who attended the meeting, the FCC indicated it would like such a system in place within the next six months.
Several local telephone companies declined comment on the ruling Thursday, pending the FCC's official order.
But Don Evans, Bell Atlantic's vice president for federal regulatory matters, said his company remains concerned about how quickly the FCC wants to move.
"Our biggest concern in this whole thing is operating a competitive environment. ... You've got to have it so that participants get all the information they need to make a decision," Evans said. "You can envision how some customers are going to be confused by this."