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House Panel to Vote on Network Neutrality

Today is a busy day for network neutrality in the U.S. House.

As one committee prepares to vote on a telecom reform bill that Democrats contend lacks effective network neutrality protections, another panel opens hearings on the antitrust implications of just such a scenario.

After opening statements late this afternoon, the House Commerce Committee plans a Wednesday vote on the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Efficiency Act of 2006 (COPE).

The centerpiece of COPE is national video franchising for IPTV providers such as Verizon and AT&T. With the goal of increasing competition in the pay television market, the proposal enjoys wide support on both sides of the aisle.

More controversial is network neutrality.

Republicans and Democrats are sharply divided over the best course of action to ensure that broadband providers -- telephone and cable companies -- do not discriminate against delivering content.

Verizon and AT&T have publicly stated they intend to charge content providers different fees based on bandwidth consumption to access consumers. Republicans see little problem with this tiered access approach and leave enforcement of network neutrality to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Democrats want the FCC's network neutrality principles, which have no force of law, turned into statutory law. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is expected to propose an amendment to COPE to do just that.

A similar proposal three weeks ago was handily defeated by the Republicans, 23-8.

Before that vote on Wednesday, though, the House Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing to explore the possible antitrust implications of having the telephone and cable companies controlling 99 percent of the U.S. broadband connections.

The Tuesday afternoon hearing is expected to cover a wide range of topics involving network neutrality, including if access tiering will affect the competitive landscape and if recent legal and regulatory developments have affected network neutrality.

Last summer, the Supreme Court upheld in the Brand X decision an FCC ruling that cable companies do not have to share their lines with competitors. To put telephone companies on the same competitive footing, the FCC then exempted DSL from line sharing.

After those two rulings, Verizon and AT&T announced their plans for tiered access for content providers.