The Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider whether the federal government should require cable TV operators to open their cable lines to Internet firms offering competing services.

The justices will hear an appeal of a lower-court ruling that threatened to force cable operators to share their Internet lines with competitors, much like local phone companies are required to do. The Federal Communications Commission had sought to exempt cable firms from the requirement, defining them as not telecommunications providers but an information service.The Supreme Court's decision could have major ramifications for computer users nationwide, many of whom have little choice about high-speed Internet providers if they live in an area served by cable but not by high-speed telephone service, known as DSL.

The Supreme Court's decision "sets the stage to finally remove a barrier to competition and consumer choice on the high-speed Internet," the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America said in a joint statement. "Consumers should be allowed to enjoy the increased choice and lower prices that come with a more competitive broadband market, as they do in the traditional 'dial up' Internet market."

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association said in a statement that it hopes the Supreme Court will reverse the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

"Classifying cable modem service as an interstate information service, as the FCC did, puts this innovative service on the right deregulatory path," the group said.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said he was pleased the Supreme Court had granted his agency's request to hear the case and hopes it will reaffirm his agency's treatment of the cable industry.

"High-speed Internet connections are not telephones," he said in a statement. "The 9th Circuit's decision would have grave consequences for the future availability of high-speed Internet connections in this country."

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