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 “>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.

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