Verizon and AT&T dodged a major legislative bullet on mandated network neutrality in the Republican-controlled 109th Congress. They had to give up on a major telecom-reform bill that contained many plums for the telcos, but the two telephone giants were more than willing to make that trade-off.
Not that a Democratic-controlled 110th Congress will make it any easier. Whether network neutrality legislation will fare any better now is still very much an open question.
But one thing is certain: The dynamics of the issue have changed.
For starters, the telcos will have to deal with Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Ed Markey, both of Massachusetts, who will chair the committees considering network neutrality legislation. Both championed bills last year that would have imposed network neutrality provisions on broadband providers.
Their bills would have curbed Verizon and AT&T’s plans to charge content providers like Google and Yahoo additional fees based on bandwidth consumption. The bills went nowhere under the Republicans. The Senate version never got past the Commerce Committee. Markey’s House amendment failed in committee and was rejected again on the House floor.
Kerry has already agreed to co-sponsor the Senate network neutrality bill introduced earlier this month by Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Markey is expected to re-introduce his failed network neutrality bill in the next few weeks.
“We in Washington are going to have a historic debate [about network neutrality] over the next two years and I will chair the committee that is having those hearings,” Markey recently told a wildly cheering crowd at a National Conference for Media Reform gathering in Memphis.
With the choir in his pocket, Markey preached the gospel.
“[Telcos] want to warp the World Wide Web into their own image of what it should look like,” he said. “These companies did virtually nothing to develop anything that has to do with what we now know as the Internet today. And now they say they have a right to put up toll roads, showing up as if they should own it all.”
Markey urged the crowd to keep those e-mails supporting his network neutrality bill rolling into Washington, noting that more than 1.5 million e-mails of support had flooded Capitol Hill since he introduced his bill last spring.
“Congress is a stimulus-response institution,” he said. “There is nothing more stimulating than having 1.5 million people say, ‘I don’t think I want you to keep your job if you don’t keep your hands off the Internet.'”
The faithful roared their approval, although, in fact, what they want is exactly that: for the government to put its hands all over the Internet, imposing regulations on broadband carriers. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but there can be no doubt Markey’s network neutrality bill is all about government regulation of the Internet.
All of which plays into the hands of AT&T, Verizon and groups opposed to network neutrality. Republicans long ago learned the voter appeal of cutting government regulations. Most of the Democrats today use that theme to one extent or another to get elected.
“We don’t think the Democrats will be in lock step over network neutrality,” said Mike McCurry, the former press secretary to Bill Clinton who directs the Hands Off the Internet coalition. “They’re starting to ask the tough questions like, ‘Would network neutrality make networks more efficient?'”
Since no one really knows the answer to that question, politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — may vote against a network neutrality bill, particularly in light of the Federal Communications Commission’s recent approval of the AT&T-BellSouth merger.
To sell the $85 billion deal to the FCC, AT&T agreed it wouldn’t prioritize Internet traffic over its DSL platform for two years, buying time for elected officials who might well decide to see how network neutrality complaints go at the FCC. Even while agreeing to the deal, AT&T said it wasn’t necessary.
“We continue to believe that net neutrality regulations are unwarranted and remain hopeful that lawmakers will pivot their efforts toward support of a national priority to deploy more advanced broadband to more Americans more quickly,” the company said in an e-mail response to internetnews.com.
AT&T’s stance against network neutrality is further strengthened by an age-old political maxim: it’s easier to kill a bill than to pass one. Markey, Kerry, Dorgan, Snowe and other proponents of network neutrality must navigate their legislation through committees and floor votes over a two-year period when the situation on the ground changes rapidly.
AT&T, on the other hand, just has to put enough doubts in lawmakers’ heads to wait out the 110th Congress. The strategy worked in the 109th Congress when senators decided to pull their support for the overall telecom reform bill in order to kill possible network neutrality amendments that might be added to it.
There’s no real reason to believe it won’t happen again this time.