Critics: Telecom Bill Guts Net Neutrality

Reporter’s Notebook House Republicans previewed a fast track telecom reform bill Monday that promotes greater choice and lower prices in the pay television market but guts broadband network neutrality, according to consumer and advocacy groups.

Rallying within hours of the introduction of the legislation, the groups uniformly condemned the bill as an attempt to “cableize” the Internet, allowing large network operators to discriminate against content providers by charging different rates depending on bandwidth use.

“The telephone and cable companies got the bill they wanted,” Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, said at a Tuesday morning teleconference.

Under the legislation — which Republicans hope to have out of committee and before the full House in a matter of weeks — telephone companies such Verizon and AT&T will be allowed to purchase a single, national franchise television license to expedite the rollout of their Internet protocol television (IPTV) services.

Once pay TV competition is established in a market, according to the draft legislation, cable companies would also be eligible to apply for a national franchise license.

The bill also allows cities to develop their own broadband networks and requires Voice over IP providers to offer E911 services.

“Current law no longer reflects the technological and competitive reality. Congress has a responsibility to update our communications laws,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement.

Neither Barton, House Speaker Dennis Hastert nor Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, mentioned network neutrality in their statements, limiting their remarks to a new day in the pay television market.

The bill, however, contains a section calling for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to have the “authority” to enforce its current broadband policy outlined in August of last year.

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.

The statement of principle, however, has no force of law and Monday’

“The FCC principles deal only with the consumer end of things,” said Earl Comstock, president and CEO of CompTel. “There’s nothing in this bill to prevent the telephone or cable companies from discriminating [against content providers].”

Consumer and advocacy groups have been urging that any telecom reform bill should contain provisions assuring network neutrality by broadband providers.

The telephone and cable companies have repeatedly said network neutrality is a solution in search of a problem.

“We are extremely disappointed. At best, [Republicans are calling] for a watered down closed system, which they [telephone and cable companies] control,” Gigi Sohn, of Public Knowledge, said.

“We need to have a non-discrimination clause, some sort of process to make sure they don’t discriminate.”

In a statement issued Monday night, Sohn said, “Without stronger legislation, the cable and telephone companies will have the power to change to fundamental nature of the Internet.”

Andy Schwartzman of the Media Access Project said the bill: “Restricts the FCC rulemaking authority. It’s a tremendous blow to the open Internet.”

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