WASHINGTON -- The turf war between cable television and telephone moved into the courtroom yesterday, as Bell Atlantic Corp. filed a suit charging that its right to free speech was violated by a law that blocks phone companies from owning cable-TV programming.
Bell Atlantic, which owns local telephone companies throughout the mid-Atlantic region, has been the most aggressive of the seven regional Bell companies in seeking to compete head-to-head with cable television companies.
Under current law, telephone companies are allowed to provide television programming over their networks, but are not allowed to own such services. That deprives them of a substantial money-making opportunity, and most telephone companies argue that it makes it hard for them to invest in the advanced fiber-optic technology needed to make such services available.
Cable companies, which enjoy monopoly franchises in almost every city, have adamantly defended the prohibition on telephone companies, on the ground that local phone companies can use their own monopolies to stifle competition.
The move by Bell Atlantic, which is being represented by Laurence H. Tribe, a professor at the Harvard Law School, adds to the tangled controversy over continued restrictions on local telephone companies.
The Bell companies are currently embroiled in a political battle in Congress, where lawmakers are weighing legislation that would bar local phone companies from owning the providers of information services.
The Bell companies had been barred from owning such services, like those that provide news reports, stock quotes and classified advertising, under the antitrust consent decree that broke up the Bell System in 1984. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington lifted the restriction in October 1991, and newspaper publishers and other information companies are pushing Congress to reinstate the ban.
The new legal challenge by Bell Atlantic is over a provision of the Cable Act of 1984, which prohibits a telephone company from owning a cable television system in a city where it provides phone service.
The provision was included because lawmakers feared that telephone companies would use their dominant presence in telephone service to stifle competition and perhaps hinder the development of cable television.