Net Neutrality Back on FCC’s Agenda

Will they, or won’t they?

For AT&T and BellSouth, that’s the big question ahead of Thursday when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers a possible vote on the companies’ proposed $67 billion merger.

It’s also the big question for network neutrality proponents, who hope the FCC will attach provisions to the deal requiring equal handling of broadband network traffic if the merger is approved.

“It’s a question of whether the FCC will establish meaningful non-discrimination principles,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, said today at a teleconference organized by network neutrality groups.

The merger would create a telecommunications giant with more than 70 million customers across 22 states. AT&T and BellSouth also jointly own Cingular Wireless, the nation’s largest wireless company.

AT&T and BellSouth believe the merger will not reduce marketplace competition since they are not competitors in the local, long distance and video markets.

Verizon and AT&T have publicly stated they intend to charge content providers different fees based on bandwidth consumption to access consumers, but will not block, degrade or impair delivery of the content to consumers.

In approving the mergers of AT&T-SBC and Verizon-MCI last year, the FCC forced the companies to adhere to the agency’s network neutrality principles for two years.

The network neutrality groups hope the FCC will impose the same requirements, at a minimum, on the AT&T and BellSouth deal.

“The FCC this week has the opportunity to take real, substantive actions to maintain a free and open Internet,” Gigi Sohn, the president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, said Tuesday.

“We recognize that the Commission could use this transaction to add another needed element to its current net neutrality policy.”

In August of 2005, the FCC declared that consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice, run applications and services of their choice and plug in and run legal devices of their choice.

The FCC also said consumers have a right to competition among network providers, application and service providers and content providers.

Public Knowledge wants the FCC to add a fifth principle to its network neutrality policy: broadband network providers must operate on a non-discriminatory basis to those who offer content, services and applications.

“Adding an enforceable non-discrimination principle to the merger conditions would send the signal that the Commission is serious that as the telephone industry becomes more and more concentrated, that its power over the operation of the Internet will be limited,” Sohn said.

The FCC also plans to open an inquiry on broadband public policy Thursday.

“The Notice of Inquiry, if done correctly, should serve to force network operators to justify their comments of past months regarding their relationships with content companies who use their networks ‘for free,'” Sohn said.

Despite all the political maneuvering, it is still an open question whether the FCC will act on the merger. While currently on the agenda, it could be pulled at the last minute if FCC Chairman Kevin Martin decides the votes aren’t there.

The FCC consists of three Republicans and two Democrats, but Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell may recuse himself from the merger vote because of his previous work as lobbyist for competitive local exchange carriers.

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