Congress considers net neutrality in communications bill

As the House faces its first vote on network neutrality regulations for broadband Internet access, representatives are being besieged by lobbyists on both sides of the issue. Staffers attended a briefing Thursday, hoping for information to help them decide how to vote.

There is no clear answer, one desperate staff member said to the panel assembled by the Internet Caucus advisory committee. He wanted to know what to tell his representative when he returned to his office.

He got two answers:

1. If you want the Internet to look like the cable industry, in which consumers have no say in what programming is available to them, vote against net neutrality.
2. If you want to kill investment in new broadband networks and technologies, vote for net neutrality.

At stake is whether Congress will regulate broadband Internet access by prohibiting carriers from discriminating among the types of content they deliver. A vote was scheduled for Thursday on rules for a debate on amendments to the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006. One of those amendments would insert requirements for net neutrality.

Proponents of net neutrality say this protection is necessary to ensure that consumers will continue to have unfettered access to all types and brands of services over the Internet, regardless of who owns the infrastructure. Opponents say the ability to differentiate and establish tiers of service for different content providers will provide the revenue and competitive advantages needed to ensure their continued infrastructure investments.

The primary issue is whether Internet carriers and access providers should be regulated as a monopoly, as the telecom industry is in the Communications Act of 1934, or whether it should be left to market forces to control a competitive environment.

"There is an utter lack of competition in the broadband field," said Gigi Sohn, president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge.

She and Christopher Libertelli, director of government and regulatory affairs for Internet telephony provider Skype Ltd., said the broadband industry is essentially a duopoly, with choices for most consumers limited to either a single telephone or cable provider.

Representatives of the telecom and cable industries disagree.

"There is cutthroat competition," with various companies struggling for market share, said Michael Schooler, deputy general counsel of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Gregg Rothschild, policy counsel for federal government relations at Verizon Communications Inc., said net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem.

"The usual prerequisite for legislation is a problem, or some kind of evidence of a problem," Rothschild said. "That has been completely absent from this debate."

At least six bills have been introduced in the House and Senate on net neutrality, but none have come up for vote in their respective chambers. The COPE Act is primarily to establish national franchising for networks that want to provide IP video programming in competition with cable companies without having to get a license in each community it would serve. Section 201 of the bill would give the Federal Communications Commission authority to enforce a policy statement it issued last year, ensuring consumers the right to access content, connect devices to and run applications over the network without discrimination.

Service and content providers say this protection is not adequate, because networks could effectively squeeze them out of business by providing a lower level of service for their content or charging them higher prices to carry it. This could effectively limit the quality of service a content provider could offer to the consumer.

An amendment to the act would substitute an explicit network neutrality provision, requiring unfettered access not only by consumers, but also by content and service providers.

"All of the costs of the network are ultimately born by the consumer," Libertelli said. "Leave consumers in control of what bandwidth they pay for."

Schooler said his industry was not advocating that the issue be ignored, but that net neutrality is premature.

"We're saying keep an eye on it" before imposing regulation, he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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