RealTime IT News

Net Neutrality Spotlight Moves to Senate

Fresh off a stinging loss in a House vote last night, supporters of a network neutrality bill licked their wounds and looked to the Senate, where an equally desperate fight awaits them on the issue.

Last night, the House roundly defeated an amendment (269-152) proposed by Ed Markey (D-Mass.), that would have made network neutrality the law of the land.

The measure would have required broadband providers such as AT&T and Comcast to treat all Internet traffic in a nondiscriminatory price manner.

However, the House did adopt a less visible amendment proposed by Lamar Smith (R-Texas) that could been seen as a small victory for network neutrality advocates. But only if the Senate passes its own version of the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Efficiency Act of 2006 (COPE) later this spring.

In the meantime, the spotlight on the issue is now turning to the Senate, which also has its own version of telecom reform to take up as well.

The Commerce Committee, chaired by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), will consider its own version of telecom reform beginning next week. The powerful chairman has promised to bring the bill to the Senate floor before the July 4 recess.

If that happens, the two bills would have to be reconciled, and that is where the Smith amendment could come into play.

That amendment ensures that anti-trust provisions safeguarding network neutrality remain in force, even though the House version of COPE hands the reins of network neutrality to the FCC.

Supporters of network neutrality want COPE to stipulate those rules, rather than leaving them to the discretion of a regulatory body packed with political appointees.

While the current version of the Senate bill is no more friendly to proponents network neutrality advocates, Stevens is said to be considering new language that could mollify those advocates in order to speed passage of this bill.

Aaron Saunders, Senator Stevens' spokesman, confirmed to internetnews.com that new language is being considered, but added that "it has not been finalized."

Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, which campaigned for the Markey amendment, told internetnews.com that this development couldn't hurt.

"From where we stand now, the only way to go is up," she said.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. And the Smith amendment, which they claim is too narrow to be helpful, hasn't satisfied advocates of network neutrality either.

But Earl Comstock, president and CEO of COMSTOCK, a lobby representing smaller telecom carriers, told internetnews.com that the amendment "doesn't hurt net neutrality."

Initiating their Senate campaign with a denunciation of the House bill, advocates of network neutrality charged that the House had abdicated its responsibility to consumers and small business, and helped usher in an end to the era of innovation.

"Most people cannot believe that Congress would vote to give broadband carriers the power to control what people can see and do online," said Alan Davidson, a spokesman for Google, which is a member of SaveTheInternet.com, a broad-based coalition of consumer, business, religious and educational groups.

Jeannine Kenney, a senior policy analyst with the Consumers Union, added that, "unless the Senate steps in, today's vote marks the beginning of the end of the Internet as an engine of new competition, entrepreneurship and innovation."

Indeed, both sides sought to define the debate in terms of choice and innovation. Supporters of the bill as passed by the House applauded the lack of provisions protecting network neutrality.

Thad Strom, a lobbyist for Verizon, said that the House bill protects business from over-regulation and provides consumers with more choice.

"Let a thousand flowers bloom," he told internetnews.com.

Jim Cicconi, senior vice president of legislative affairs for AT&T, issued a statement applauding the House for advancing "broadband deployment, video competition and consumer choice."

Likewise Jeff Mazzella, president of free market think tank Center for Individual Freedom, said that COPE will "provide real choice in service for all Americans."

There are fewer than 30 business days left for Congress to act this year, and next year, one or both houses could change hands, altering the playing field for backers of the current House bill.