Telecom Reform Hopes Fading

WASHINGTON — Telecom reform is dead in the U.S. Senate — until at least a November lame duck session, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said today.

Blame it on network neutrality, he added.

With the Senate planning a Sept. 29 adjournment for the fall elections, Stevens told a packed luncheon sponsored by the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), “It [telecom reform] obviously can’t be done before the recess.”

In July, Stevens’ Commerce Committee narrowly approved a sweeping telecom reform bill that contains no statutory language to guarantee non-discriminatory network traffic management by telephone and cable carriers of Internet broadband traffic.

Instead, the legislation leaves issues of network neutrality violations to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Since the committee vote, Stevens has been unable to gain the 60 floor votes he needs to block a promised filibuster by proponents of network neutrality.

“I think we’re still 10 votes short,” he told reporters. “It’s possible we can still get it passed [when the Senate returns for lame duck session on Nov. 13].”

Freed from common carrier obligations through a series of court decisions and FCC rulings, broadband providers such as Verizon and AT&T plan to charge consumers based on bandwidth consumption.

Technology companies, including Google, Amazon and eBay, claim the pricing scheme will create a two-tiered Internet with a fast lane for those who can afford it and a slow lane for those who can’t.

The House passed a telecom bill in June that also leaves network neutrality to the FCC.

“There has been much debate on this issue in the Senate Commerce Committee, in House committees, on the House floor, in the newspapers and in the blogosphere,” Stevens said Thursday in floor remarks.

“But some senators have prevented full debate on this issue on the Senate floor. It is time now for the Senate to allow the debate on this bill to start.”

Speaking after Stevens at the PFF luncheon, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts supported Stevens’ bill.

“Hopefully, Congress will let the FCC continue to gather facts on [network neutrality],” he said. “That way, the debate can be shaped by facts, not fear mongering.”

Currently, all Internet traffic is prioritized, treated and priced the same from the smallest of Web sites to the largest of Internet giants.

Both Verizon and AT&T have combined to invest billions of dollars into building fiber optic IP networks capable of delivering a competitive product to cable systems. They claim the new pricing plans are necessary to recoup their investments.

“We do not need a network neutrality provision,” Stevens said. “These people who want it have a fetish. There’s no way to appeal to them. It’s a shame we’ll lose 18 months of work.”

Stevens also promised he would not break up his telecom bill in order to get certain parts of it passed, particularly a proposal to give the Bells a national television franchise.

“We’ll deal with the bill as it is,” he said. “We’re going to consider it on its own merits.”

The franchise portion of the bill is designed to allow the telephone companies sidestep seeking local franchises in the markets where they plan to deliver television service. The same proposal is in the House bill.

Stevens said the proposal would lower cable bills by encouraging the telephone companies to implement their fiber roll out.

He also said Democrats blocking the telecom reform bill don’t want the bill to come up for a vote before the elections since they would be forced to choose between supporting lower cable rates or tougher network neutrality provisions.

“People who block will pay a terrible price [at the polls],” Stevens predicted.

Late Thursday, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, threw his support to Stevens.

“Senator Stevens was exactly right about the benefits of telecommunications legislation currently before the Senate. [It] will greatly expand consumer choice, especially for TV programming, and likely lead to lower prices for many communication services,” he said in a statement. “Democrats in the House understood this when 106 voted for it. I hope Democrats in the Senate will soon see the light and help pass this important bill.”

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