RealTime IT News

No New Laws For Net Neutrality?

WASHINGTON -- The cable and telephone industries again insisted Tuesday they have no plans or intentions to block either Internet content or applications over their high-speed broadband networks.

That contention sparked a sharp war of words between Internet companies and the carriers that provide the bandwidth for their services.

Testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee, the heads of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and the United States Telecom Association (USTA) emphatically insisted no new laws are necessary to ensure broadband customers access to all legal content on the Internet.

They did, however, admit they want additional fees from high bandwidth content and application providers to access consumers through their pipes.

The proposal has prompted hand wringing among Internet companies and consumer advocates alike that the cable and telephone industries, which control 98 percent of the U.S. broadband market, will make private deals that favor one content provider over another.

Lawmakers, in turn, are considering revising the 1996 Telecommunications Act to ensure a principle known as net neutrality where the providers of Internet service are obligated to make their networks available to all legal content and applications in a non-discriminatory manner.

With little or no evidence that either cable modem or DSL providers have attempted to favor, say, Google's search engine over Yahoo's, the industries claim the Net neutrality debate is a solution in search of a problem.

"As the industry that largely created the residential broadband market, we fully embrace and will seek to protect a vibrant Internet," Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the NCTA, said.

"So, let me be clear: NCTA's members have not, and will not, block the ability of their high-speed Internet customers to access any lawful content, application or services available over the public Internet."

Walter McCormick, president and CEO of the USTA, added "Today, I make the same commitment to you that our member companies make to their Internet customers: We will not block, impair or degrade content, applications or services. That is the plainest and most direct way I know to address concerns that have been raised about Net neutrality."

Skeptics immediately stepped forward.

Google Vice President and "Chief Internet Evangelist" Vint Cerf, one of the pioneer architects of the Internet, said, "Google believes that the consumer should be able to use the Internet connections that they pay for the way they want. This principle -- that users pick winners and losers in the Internet marketplace, not carriers -- is an architectural and policy choice critical to innovation online."

Cerf further noted that most consumers are lucky if they have the choice of two broadband providers, concentrating market power with the cable and telephone companies.

"In the absence of any meaningful competition in the consumer broadband market, and without…consumer safeguards, one would expect carriers to have the economic incentive -- and the opportunity -- to control users' online activities," Cerf said.

Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig told lawmakers that what the cable and telephone companies are seeking "would radically reduce competition and content on the Internet."

Jeffrey Citron, chairman and CEO of the independent Internet phone company Vonage, noted that the cable and telephone industries are already being paid twicde for their services.

"As a businessman, I don't get -- nor do I expect -- a 'free ride' on anyone's network," he said. "Vonage pays network operators tens of millions of dollars a year for Internet access to deliver our service to subscribers. On top of that, consumers pay billions of dollars every year to these companies for high-speed Internet access. No one gets a free ride."

The cable industry's McSlarrow said Google and other Internet companies "will tell you that they are just looking out for the next generation of entrepreneurs ... To the contrary, now that these companies have achieved a leadership position in the marketplace, they want to foreclose any new business model that would enable new entrants to challenge them."

Without network experimentation, he claimed, "You force all networks to compete only on size and price, which benefits only larger players, limiting the many types of competition and innovation emerging today."

The USTA's McCormick was more circumspect.

"All sides of the Net neutrality debate agree that consumers should be in control of their Internet experience," he said. "Where we differ is whether consumers alone should foot the bill for the advanced networks that drive the Internet's growth and evolution."

As companies increasingly move toward putting live video, games and advanced service on the Internet, he said, they will be seeking more bandwidth.

"Simply put, our side believes that businesses that seek to profit on the use of next-generation networks should not be free of all costs associated with the increased capacity that is required for the delivery of the advanced services and applications they seek to market," McCormick said.