Fresh Start For Net Neutrality?
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Call it the network neutrality comeback. Call it net neutrality Thursday on Capitol Hill. Do not call it a done deal.
Both the House and Senate will take up legislation today on the increasingly contentious issue of just what is -- or is not -- network neutrality.
"This is an important day for the future of the Internet," Paul Misener, vice president of Global Public Policy at Amazon, said during a teleconference yesterday. "The [telephone companies] have the technological means, market power and regulatory relief to restrict content on the Internet."
Just a month ago, the issue seemed to be rolling to a clean sweep by telephone and cable companies to charge content providers a premium fee to deliver enhanced services.
A House panel in April approved legislation that would allow broadband providers to create a tiered pricing scheme on the commercial end of their pipes. Under the bill, issues of network neutrality would be referred to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Days later, the Senate Commerce Committee introduced a bill endorsing the same idea and sending network neutrality to the FCC for further study.
Since then, though, major Internet companies and a grassroots movement of more than 700 groups have combined to lobby Congress to reconsider the issue. Their protests have resulted in alternative legislative proposals.
"We are encouraged by the progress of the last two weeks," said Alan Davidson, Google's chief lobbyist. "Broadband providers should not be allowed to pick winners and losers."
Amazon, Google and others argue that broadband providers such as Verizon and AT&T's proposed business models of commercial tiered access are a form of network discrimination, favoring those who can pay over those who cannot.
"Consumers don't want the old cable TV model grafted upon the Internet," said Gig Sohn, president and co-founder of public interest advocacy group Public Knowledge. "It's all about eliminating discriminatory business models."
The House Judiciary Committee will speak directly to that issue Thursday morning when the panel votes on a proposal by Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) to prohibit broadband network providers from charging extra fees to run content at the same speed and quality of the network owner's own content.
In the Senate, the Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on the same issue.
"Once policy makers have a chance to think about it, we think they won't want a duopoly [phone and cable companies] controlling the on ramps of the Internet," Sohn said.
As they have for months, Verizon and AT&T maintain the net neutrality issue is a solution in search of a problem.
"Nobody can even settle on a definition. It should be studied further by the FCC," AT&T spokesman David Fish told internetnews.com. "It's really time for policy makers to take a deep breath and decide what's important."
For Verizon and AT&T, that would be national video franchising for their nascent IPTV services. Both the House and the Senate have made it the centerpiece of their proposed telecom reform bills.
Congress hopes clearing the regulatory decks for an IPTV rollout will help bring down pay TV rates by promoting a competitor to cable companies.
"Time is marching on and the more controversial items that get added [to telecom reform], the harder it will be to get anything passed," Fish said. "It would be a shame to lose what everyone wants - more TV choices and lower prices."
AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris added, "Net neutrality would effectively make it illegal to bring new video choices and innovation to consumers."