The City of Fairfax jumped into the growing national debate over the future of the Internet when its City Council voted this week to require its new cable television provider to open up its high-speed lines to other Internet service providers.

The council's 4 to 2 vote would require Atlanta-based Cox Communications Inc. to let competitors provide Internet service to Cox customers over the high-capacity cable wires that go into their homes. Starting today, Cox becomes the new cable operator for Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax, the result of its purchase of Media General Cable's Northern Virginia operation for $1.4 billion.

Officials in Portland, Ore., and Broward County, Fla., have taken similar actions with their cable provider, AT&T, and have been taken to court for it.

A coalition of Internet providers, led by industry behemoth America Online, argues that opening up the high-speed cable lines will make Internet service more competitive and less expensive for consumers. Indeed, AOL advised Fairfax city officials as they considered the measure.

Cox and other cable operators argue that communities have no legal authority to impose such requirements. They say they've spent big money to wire homes to cable systems and shouldn't be forced to let competitors benefit from it. Instead, the cable television companies want to use those wires to provide Internet service in competition with companies such as AOL and Erols.

Cox representatives said yesterday that if negotiations fail, they may sue the City of Fairfax--a step city officials said they expect. The company also threatened to not provide high-speed data service to the company's 5,600 customers in the city. The council's action does not affect surrounding Fairfax County, which has nearly 250,000 cable subscribers and recently approved Media General's transfer to Cox with no such conditions.

Fairfax city officials who pushed for the open access said they did it to better serve their residents.

"This is the story of a little city taking the initiative and taking leadership in an issue that's fast becoming a dominant issue across the nation," said Scott Silverthorne, the Fairfax council member who sponsored the measure. "What I'm trying to do is . . . give our constituents as many choices as possible for their Internet services."

Many people see the debate over high-speed data lines as crucial to the future of the Internet. The cable lines that already reach into many homes can provide so-called "broad band" Internet service, allowing users to flip through graphics-laden pages on the World Wide Web far more quickly than by connecting to the Internet over traditional telephone lines.

Internet providers such as AOL say that cable companies should be forced to lease those lines to them to spur competition.

Rich Bond, co-director of a group called the openNet Coalition, which represents more than 800 technology companies, said legislators across the country are mulling the same issues.

"It's a courageous [move] by the folks in Fairfax City," said Bond. He accused Cox of "bullying" in its threat to not implement high-speed Internet service for Fairfax City customers.

Cox and cable company organizations say it simply isn't fair to force cable operators to accommodate competitors.

"I don't think we're trying to use bully techniques," said Amy Cohn, Cox's spokeswoman. "We spent a lot of money and capital to upgrade the networks for broadband service. . . . We have a real financial interest to protect."

Josie Martin, vice president of public affairs at the National Cable Television Association, called Fairfax's move disappointing. "There's no reason for the government--any government, not Fairfax City, not the United States Congress--to insert themselves into this issue at this time. The marketplace can and will decide this, and the consumers will be the beneficiaries."

Under federal communication regulations, companies must get approval from local jurisdictions before taking over a local cable operation, the way Cox is taking over Media General's Northern Virginia markets.

Fairfax County and five smaller jurisdictions in Northern Virginia that have been served by Media General Cable of Fairfax have signed off on the Cox takeover. And even the Fairfax City Council said that if Cox sues and wins, it would allow the transfer to proceed.

The Vienna Town Council is scheduled to decide next week whether to approve the Cox takeover in that community.