RealTime IT News

Democrats Put FCC Chairman on Defensive

WASHINGTON -- Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin found himself on the defensive today over his comments that AT&T's network neutrality concessions in its $85 million merger with BellSouth "would not dictate or bind government policy."

Testifying for the first time before a Democrat-controlled Congress, the Republican chairman's post-merger statements were challenged by new Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

Inouye said he found it difficult to understand why Martin voted for a deal "he didn't intend to stand by," a characterization Martin sharply disagreed with.

"What we [fellow Republican Commissioner Deborah Tate Taylor co-signed the statement with Martin] indicated was that while the company agreed to abide by certain network neutrality agreements that does mean we are changing our policies," Martin said.

The FCC would, he insisted, enforce the merger agreement.

In the December merger agreement, AT&T agreed to promise that it wouldn't prioritize Internet traffic over its platform for two years, a key concession that helped seal a unanimous vote by the FCC commissioners.

The concession was in addition to the four network neutrality principles already articulated by the FCC. In August 2005, the FCC declared consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice, run applications and services of their choice, plug in and run legal devices of their choice.

The FCC also said consumers have a right to competition among network, content, application and service providers.

After the merger vote, Martin and Taylor said in a statement, "Today's order does not mean that the commission has adopted an additional network neutrality principle. We continue to believe such a requirement is not necessary and may impede infrastructure deployment."

Thursday morning, Martin again said AT&T's merger concession did not mean the FCC was "altering the law," adding that the agreement could not be used to "change commission policy or commission rules or regulations."

Any subsequent changes to the FCC's stated network neutrality principles, Martin said, would require "affirmative action" by the agency or Congress.

Senators Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have already introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, a bill that would prohibit broadband carriers from discriminatory practices such as pricing in handling traffic from Internet content, application and service providers.

The legislation would also require carriers to offer consumers individual broadband service that is not bundled with television or telephone service.

In the House, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is expected to introduce similar legislation.

Martin's statements were publicly issued the day of the merger vote but hadn't been questioned until Wednesday, when Markey and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) sent Martin a letter asking him to explain his remarks.

Dingell, the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Markey, chairman of the panel's Internet subcommittee, plan a Feb. 15 oversight hearing on the FCC.