Compromise in Works For Net Neutrality?

Act II of the network neutrality saga opens today on Capitol Hill with possible compromise on the issue in the air.

Staff members from the Republican and Democratic side of the Commerce aisle met with reporters yesterday and predicted compromise language was in the making on current bills, but declined to reveal any more details.

The first act of the issue ended late last Thursday with the U.S. House of Representatives handing an overwhelming victory to telephone companies that are fighting to install a two-tiered pricing scheme for their high-speed Internet pipes.

On a vote of 269-152, and grassroots organizations trying to get Congress to treat all network traffic the same with net neutrality legislation.

Instead, the House left disputes over network neutrality to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“I’m not really surprised [at the outcome],” Lezlee Wistine, the president and CEO of TechNet, a nationwide organization of technology executives, told Monday. “The other side is deeply involved and really working hard.”

Now, the issue is slated for the Senate Commerce Committee, which plans to hold the third of three hearings on Chairman Ted Stevens’ vision of telecom reform.

Under the Alaska Republican’s bill, the issue of network neutrality would be handed to the FCC for further study. But Stevens indicated he is open to compromise — up to a point.

“Many members do not believe the provision in the existing bill goes far enough,” Stevens told cable providers late last week. “We are trying now to find that language that will make members on each side of this issue comfortable to vote for the bill.”

However, Stevens warned, “That doesn’t mean that it’s going to really be what many people want.”

Stevens said he wanted to avoid government intervention in what he views as a commercial marketplace battle between content providers such as Google, Yahoo and Amazon, and broadband providers AT&T and Verizon.

Under the broadband providers’ plan, an extra fee would be charged to content providers who use large amounts of bandwidth to deliver their products. The content providers see the proposal as discriminatory and are seeking laws to prohibit the practice.

“I see no reason why we should use government lawyers to try and referee a fight between billion dollar entities that are disputing their rights with one another,” Stevens said. “I think the FCC should be there to protect the consumer and to ensure that there is a level playing field for everybody.”

Although Stevens said a compromise on network neutrality might be in the works, he stressed he still supports his original idea to have the FCC study the whole matter.

“I included a provision in the draft bill to require the FCC to monitor the marketplace and literally raise a red flag if they think there is anti-competitive behavior starting in the industry,” he said. “I think we are dealing with a fear in terms of net neutrality.”

Part of the fear, he was said, was based on a lack of understanding of just what network neutrality is.

“I felt it would be difficult to legislate to fix a ‘problem’ before Congress really understood what the problem is,” Stevens said. “The more I seek to find what the problem is, the harder job I have of trying to define it.”

Like the House telecom reform bill, Stevens’ overall legislation calls for national video franchising to speed competition in the pay television market.

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