GOP Defeats Dem's Net Neutrality Moves
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WASHINGTON - House Republicans Wednesday strengthened net neutrality provisions in their working telecom reform legislation but turned back tougher measures demanded by Democrats.
With a primary focus on national video licenses for telephone companies, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Efficiency Act of 2006 (COPE) was widely criticized for barely touching on net neutrality issues when it was introduced last week.
The telephone and cable companies, which control 99 percent of the U.S. broadband pipes, plan to charge content providers different rates based on bandwidth consumption while reserving a "fast lane" for their own content.
Republicans contend that net neutrality is the proverbial solution in search of a problem, and COPE passes off the issue to the Federal communications Commission (FCC), which approved a set of broadband principles last August.
Wednesday, Republicans didn't change their stance but toughened FCC penalties for broadband network operators that discriminate against content providers, upping the fine to $500,000 per violation.
"While there is virtually no evidence of actual bad behavior in the marketplace, I believe that authorizing the FCC to enforce its Broadband Policy Statement is a better framework to ensure that the public Internet remains open and dynamic," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
Upton added that the "anticipatory regulation" being pushed by the Democrats would have a "dramatically chilling effect on broadband deployment and the development of exciting, new services."
Democrats readily agreed to the tougher fines, but introduced their own amendment calling for broadband providers such as AT&T and Comcast to operate in a non-discriminatory manner "so that any person can offer or provide content, applications and services through, or over, [broadband networks] with equivalent or better capability than the provider extends to itself or affiliated parties."
The amendment failed on a 23-8 vote.
Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), one of the amendment's co-sponsors, criticized the Republicans for "extending the [telephone and cable] duopoly from control of the last mile to content. A start-up simply is not going to be able to afford the fast lane."
Boucher noted that the FCC broadband principles do not extend to content providers while fellow amendment co-sponsor Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said, "Non-discrimination is baked in to the Internet's DNA."
Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico was the only Republican to break ranks and vote in favor of the Democrat's proposal.
"Consumers should be driving demand on the Internet, not the pipe owners," she said. "Cable and telephone companies control access but they should not determine what the content or speed in to home is."
Shortly before the vote on the Democrat's amendment, Markey told fellow lawmakers they were facing a "historic moment for communications as we are about to break with the history of the Internet."
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has control over COPE, said the Democrat's amendment was the "best statutory definition I've seen yet, but I want to wait and see what develops."
After silently listening to the ongoing give-and-take between the Republicans and the Democrats, Republican John Shimkus of Illinois declared, "[The Democrats] are portraying the debate as a zero sum game, but the sky is not falling and it's not the end of mankind as we know it."
At deadline, lawmakers were still debating the overall COPE Act in hopes of passing the legislation and moving it along to the full House Energy and Commerce Committee. Barton hopes to have a telecom reform bill before the full House by summer.
The Senate has not yet taken up telecom reform, but early legislative drafts take a much a harder approach to network neutrality than does the House.