RealTime IT News

Senate Showing Little Interest in Net Neutrality

WASHINGTON - The network neutrality debate resumed today in the U.S. Senate the way it ended in the House of Representatives Thursday night: apparently dead on arrival.

As the Senate Commerce Committee held its third of three hearings on a telecom reform bill, lawmakers seemed content to leave the controversial issue to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

"We do already have [network neutrality] principles set forward by the FCC," Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) said. "The House legislation steers in the right direction."

Last week, the House passed telecom reform legislation that features national video franchising and a clause that empowers the FCC to enforce the network neutrality principles the agency approved last August.

The FCC principles would allow broadband providers such as AT&T and Comcast to create a two-tiered Internet with extra fees charged to bandwidth-intensive content providers like Google, Yahoo and Amazon.

An amendment to require broadband providers to treat all Internet traffic in a nondiscriminatory price manner was easily defeated by the House.

"[Network neutrality] language was rejected overwhelmingly by the House," Sununu noted. "The one thing the public understands is the heavy hand of legislation."

Network neutrality supporters hope to push a Senate amendment similar to the defeated House measure to outlaw the pricing plans of the broadband providers but, if Tuesday's debate is any indication, the legislative will is lacking.

"The [broadband] market will take off if we just let it," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said. "Once we interject [government], we're going to create a litigation playground for lawyers."

Under the Senate telecom reform bill, issues of network neutrality would be left to further FCC study. Last week, Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) hinted at a possible compromise in the making but only to the extent of matching the language approved by House.

"There is so much good in the broader bill, it would be a shame if network neutrality ruined it," Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said.

Like the House version of telecom reform, the Senate legislation promotes a national video franchising mechanism allowing for the quick entry of telephone companies into the pay TV market.

Virginia Republican George Allen also praised the overall bill as "so important for so many reasons" while never raising the network neutrality issue before the panel of witnesses.

Of those witnesses, only Internet service provider EarthLink and Free Press, a Washington-based organization focused on media issues, spoke in favor of network neutrality.

"We believe consumers are best served by an open access model where network owners offer fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory wholesale rates to others who seek to bring customers to that network," Chris Putala, executive vice president of public policy at EarthLink, said.

Putala said the business plans of the dominant broadband providers amounted to a "success" tax.

"EarthLink rejects the argument by the telephone and cable duopolists that networks must be closed and applications subject a success tax to promote network investment," he said. "We embrace network neutrality because it is both consumer friendly and economically right."

Ben Scott, policy director at Free Press, added, "The move toward discrimination and exclusivity for Internet content spells disaster for consumers - meaning higher prices, fewer choices and a gatekeeper standing astride what was heretofore a truly free market."

Dr. John Rutledge, speaking on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, reflected the view of the majority of the panelists.

"Congress has the opportunity this year to abandon the misguided ideas that they have the ability to predict new technologies and that regulation encourages competition," he said.

"This nation has a choice. It either adopts a policy that fosters the buildout of the infrastructure or it must be content to exist with today's limited system and force all traffic over lines not built for the convergence of Internet, television, video and massive amounts of data."

The Commerce Committee expects to vote on the legislation as early as next week with a target date of mid-July for a full Senate vote.