Fresh Start For Net Neutrality?


Call it the network neutrality comeback. Call it net neutrality Thursday on
Capitol Hill. Do not call it a done deal.


Both the House and Senate will take up legislation today on the
increasingly contentious issue of just what is — or is not — network
neutrality.


“This is an important day for the future of the Internet,” Paul Misener,
vice president of Global Public Policy at Amazon, said during a teleconference yesterday. “The [telephone companies] have the technological means,
market power and regulatory relief to restrict content on the Internet.”


Just a month ago, the issue seemed to be rolling to a clean sweep by
telephone and cable companies to charge content providers a premium fee to
deliver enhanced services.


A House panel in April approved
legislation that would allow broadband providers to create a tiered pricing
scheme on the commercial end of their pipes. Under the bill, issues of
network neutrality would be referred to the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC).


Days later, the Senate Commerce Committee introduced a bill
endorsing the same idea and sending network neutrality to the FCC for
further study.


Since then, though, major Internet companies and a grassroots movement of
more than 700 groups have combined to lobby Congress to reconsider the
issue. Their protests have resulted in alternative legislative proposals.


“We are encouraged by the progress of the last two weeks,” said Alan Davidson,
Google’s chief lobbyist. “Broadband providers should not be allowed to
pick winners and losers.”


Amazon, Google and others argue that broadband providers such as Verizon and
AT&T’s proposed business models of commercial tiered access are a form of
network discrimination, favoring those who can pay over those who cannot.


“Consumers don’t want the old cable TV model grafted upon the Internet,” said Gig
Sohn, president and co-founder of public interest advocacy group Public Knowledge. “It’s all about
eliminating discriminatory business models.”


The House Judiciary Committee will speak directly to that issue Thursday
morning when the panel votes on a proposal by Chairman James Sensenbrenner
(R-Wis.) to prohibit broadband network providers from charging extra fees to
run content at the same speed and quality of the network owner’s own
content.


In the Senate, the Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on the same issue.


“Once policy makers have a chance to think about it, we think they won’t
want a duopoly [phone and cable companies] controlling the on ramps of the
Internet,” Sohn said.


As they have for months, Verizon and AT&T maintain the net neutrality issue
is a solution in search of a problem.


“Nobody can even settle on a definition. It should be studied further by the
FCC,” AT&T spokesman David Fish told internetnews.com. “It’s really
time for policy makers to take a deep breath and decide what’s important.”


For Verizon and AT&T, that would be national video franchising for their
nascent IPTV services. Both the House and the Senate have made it the
centerpiece of their proposed telecom reform bills.


Congress hopes clearing the regulatory decks for an IPTV rollout will help
bring down pay TV rates by promoting a competitor to cable companies.


“Time is marching on and the more controversial items that get added [to
telecom reform], the harder it will be to get anything passed,” Fish said.
“It would be a shame to lose what everyone wants – more TV choices and lower
prices.”


AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris added, “Net neutrality would effectively
make it illegal to bring new video choices and innovation to consumers.”

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