Updated 5 yearss ago
A tiny Internet service provider battles giant Sprint over new high-speed access.
By Julie S. Bettinger
Jim Hunt admits it's a common joke these days among his business associates, who ask him, "Haven't you ever heard of choosing your enemies?" Hunt, CEO of a 12-employee Internet service provider, has filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against industry giant Sprint-Florida, accusing it of blocking his efforts to offer high-speed Internet access.
Industry experts say the lawsuit is the first of its kind in the nation and predict a series of legal battles will follow, as smaller firms that rely on phone company lines seek to expand in the booming high-speed data transmission services sector.
"The battles being waged against the local (phone) companies have focused on voice service," says telecommunications attorney Floyd Self, a partner with Messer Caparello & Self. "You have not had a lot of carriers focusing'' on digital subscriber lines (DSL).
Hunt's company, ElectroNet Intermedia Consulting in Tallahassee, provided high-speed Internet access via a digital subscriber line as early as 1997. But according to the suit, Sprint began various stalling tactics -- requiring special certification and an interconnection agreement, delaying equipment installation and providing unreliable network maps -- to keep ElectroNet out of the market until Sprint itself was ready to offer the same service in February 2000.
And when Sprint was ready to roll out its own DSL service in February, ElectroNet learned that Sprint was offering five-day installation, while averaging 17 days for ElectroNet's customers.
When ElectroNet sought a preliminary injunction in June, Sprint agreed to some concessions -- providing ElectroNet the same turnaround time for hookup as Sprint's customers and offering more timely answers on service availability.
Though the complaint has not been brought before the Public Service Commission, which regulates telecommunications, spokesperson Robby Cunningham says, "The Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened up a whole new world of issues that people couldn't have anticipated. As with any new technology, kinks need to be worked out." As new technologies emerge, he says, there is likely to be an increased need for clarification.
"Our goal all along has been to bring high-speed Internet access to the community -- and we were pioneering in doing it," says Hunt.
Until clearer standards are developed to prohibit phone companies from calling the shots, "It's a ripe issue for the courts," says Hunt's attorney, Tom Findley.
In the current environment, monopolies are holding back the development of better technologies by their barriers, Findley says. "If technology is going to advance, it is going to be assisted more by smaller innovative companies than the larger monopolies."
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