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GOP Gets Its Way on Net Neutrality

House Commerce Committee Republicans defeated an effort by Democrats today to strengthen network neutrality provisions in the panel's telecom reform bill.

With four Democrats breaking ranks and joining the Republicans, the panel voted 34-22 to turn back an amendment by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) that would prohibit broadband providers from charging content and service providers different rates based on bandwidth consumption.

Markey said the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Efficiency Act of 2006 (COPE) as currently written would "fundamentally and detrimentally alter the Internet."

In urging committee members to vote for his amendment, Markey said, "This is the moment. You can't go back from here."

Under COPE, the proposed business models of AT&T and Verizon to charge content providers an extra fee to deliver enhanced services to consumers would be permitted.

"If [the telcos] spend billions and billions of dollars to put a network into play and charge a fee to those who want to take advantage of these enhanced services, I think that's a good thing," Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton said.

Barton added that under the Markey amendment, the broadband providers "can't charge for those things. That lessens the possibility that they'll even offer those things."

Rep. Anna Eschoo (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the Markey amendment, urged members to go online and "Listen to what users are saying [about COPE]. There's a prairie fire out there and they are outraged. [The bill] would regulate and establish tolls on the Internet."

The third co-sponsor of the Markey amendment, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Vir.), said with COPE, "The handwriting is on the wall. [COPE] will allow business models to create a two-lane Internet. Companies in the slower lane will not be able to effectively compete with those in the fast lane."

Barton and other Republicans argued that COPE preserves the principles of network neutrality established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last August.

Those principles, though, deal with the rights of those on the consumer end of the broadband pipe. The FCC principles do not address the rights of content providers to use the Internet as an equal and open platform.

"If there are abuses in the future, we'll identify them and take action," Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said. "[The Democrats'] premise is that this is a zero sum game, but there is no true definition of network neutrality. Under this bill, everyone is a winner and everyone will benefit."

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) was the sole Republican on the panel to vote in favor of Markey's amendment.

"I'm concerned about the direction we're going in here," she said. "[COPE] is a precedent setting solution that changes the way the Internet works."

Earlier in the day, the committee defeated an effort by Democrats to impose requirements that holders of national video licenses, the centerpiece of COPE, serve an entire franchise area.

Under COPE, telephone companies such Verizon and AT&T will be allowed to purchase a single, national franchise television license to expedite the rollout of their Internet protocol television (IPTV) services.

The bill would also allow cities to develop their own broadband networks and would require Voice over IP providers to offer E911 services.

As of deadline, the committee was still debating the overall bill. Barton said he hoped for a vote by evening.



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