The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted today to end regulations requiring incumbent telecommunications carriers to share their Digital Subscriber Line broadband connections with competitors.

The FCC, in a 4-0 vote, removed regulations that allowed competitors such as EarthLink Inc. to offer DSL over lines owned by the four incumbent telecom carriers, often called the Baby Bells. While large Internet service providers such as EarthLink have already negotiated agreements with the Bells, some consumer advocates and industry observers predicted the FCC's decision could kill off DSL service from small providers when the network-sharing rules end in a year.

The move puts DSL regulation on equal footing with cable modem service after the U.S. Supreme Court in June rejected a challenge to an earlier FCC decision that allowed cable companies to close their networks to competitors (see "High court backs cable companies on Internet lines").

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin called the decision "momentous," with consumers benefiting from a "leveling of the playing field" between DSL and cable modem service. "I believe that, with the actions we take today, consumers will reap the benefits of increased Internet access competition and enjoy innovative high-speed services at lower prices," he said.

The four remaining Bells inherited much of their telecom networks from the breakup of the old AT&T monopoly in the 1980s. In an effort to spur competition, the FCC and U.S. Congress required them to share parts of their networks with competitors at discounted prices. But in the past two years, the Republican-led FCC has moved away from those regulations.

Baby Bells SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. cheered the FCC's decision, saying old rules requiring them to share parts of their networks with competitors discouraged them from investing in new products and offering new services. The decision will help the Bells meet President George Bush's goal of nationwide broadband availability by 2007, Verizon said in a statement.

"The benefits of this ruling will ripple across our communities by encouraging greater investment in and a wider rollout of broadband networks," added James Smith, a senior vice president for FCC issues at SBC.

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