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House Subcommittee Rejects Net Neutrality Amendment
[April 06, 2006]

House Subcommittee Rejects Net Neutrality Amendment

TMCnet Associate Editor
 
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet yesterday voted down a proposed amendment to a controversial telecommunications bill that would have given the Federal Communications Commission greater power to enforce “net neutrality” principles.

The Democrat-backed amendment, which was voted down by the Republican-controlled committee 8 to 23, would have prohibited network operators from establishing separate tiers of broadband service and then charging service and content providers “access fees” in order to use those tiers. The amendment also contained language that would have prohibited network operators from blocking or degrading content or communications traversing their networks.

Following the rejection of the amendment, the subcommittee approved the
Communications, Promotion, and Enhancement Act 27 to 4, thus sending it on to the full committee for a vote later this month. The current version of the bill, which has already undergone several revisions, would give the FCC (News - Alert) the power to impose fines of up to $500,000, per incident, on network operators who block or degrade voice, video or data signals on their networks. It also includes a provision wherein the FCC would have no more than 90 days to adjudicate alleged acts of “discrimination.”


The amendment came after House Democrats, Internet companies and free market groups attacked the bill for failing to give the FCC enough power to uphold net neutrality principles. On Wednesday, chief executives from Amazon.com, eBay, Google (News - Alert), Microsoft (News - Alert) and Yahoo wrote a last-minute letter to the committee urging it to include stronger language upholding net neutrality principles.

Net neutrality (News - Alert) is the concept that everyone, everywhere, should have free and unfettered access to all the Internet has to offer, and that network operators should be prohibited from blocking or degrading signals or content traversing their networks. Although the bill includes provisions allowing the FCC to investigate, and act on, alleged incidents of discrimination, after the fact, it does not include hard and fast rules regarding network access. The current draft would allow network operators to establish separate tiers of faster broadband service, and would also allow them to charge service and content providers “access fees” to use those tiers for express delivery to their customers.

During a committee hearing last week, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), a ranking Democrat on the committee, said he was disappointed the proposed bill didn’t give the FCC more power to punish network operators who engage acts of “discrimination” by blocking or degrading others’ signals.

“I believe the bill before this committee today has serious defects – flaws that will harm consumers and that risk condoning conduct by broadband companies that will destroy the Internet as we know it,” Markey said during his
testimony. “In my view, rules ensuring network neutrality are indispensable.”

Democratic leaders in the Senate also expressed dismay over the bill’s lack of provisions regarding net neutrality.

“This legislation begins the construction of a multi-layered, toll-strewn information superhighway that is out of sync with what has made the internet work – access for all,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) in a statement last Monday.

Sen. Wyden submitted his own net neutrality bill - which is now before the Senate Commerce Committee - in early March. Unlike the bill now before the House Committee, Wyden’s “Internet Non Discrimination Act,” would prohibit the establishment of separate tiers of Internet service and would also prohibit network operators from charging access fees. Perhaps more importantly, the bill includes specific language prohibiting network operators from blocking or degrading content or voice or video signals.

Although some Democratic leaders applauded the proposed amendment to the House bill, some, including Sen. Wyden, asserted that it still didn’t give the FCC enough power to enforce net neutrality principles.

“The special interest groups are pulling out all the stops to ensure a two-tiered Internet that will benefit special interests at the expense of American consumers,” Sen. Wyden said in a statement yesterday. “I will do everything in my power to oppose legislation that does not include strong net neutrality protections.”

The House bill will need to be reconciled with the Senate bill if both are adopted. It is possible that the two bills will somehow be combined – or it could be that only portions of the House bill will become law as a result of this year’s short legislative session. The House bill, which is much broader, also proposes a national framework for cable franchising and addresses VoIP E-911 service, whereas Sen. Wyden’s proposed bill is almost exclusively focused on net neutrality. It is likely that whatever bill Congress approves this year will serve as a replacement for the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which is now largely obsolete due to dramatic changes in the telecom industry, particularly the migration of voice and video to the Internet.

Meanwhile, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Bryon Dorgan (D-ND), both members of the
US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, are reportedly circulating yet another draft bill focusing on network neutrality. Their bill, which is reportedly similar to the Wyden bill, would also prohibit network operators from establishing paid tiers of service, as well as blocking or degrading services or content.

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Patrick Barnard is Associate Editor for TMCnet and a columnist covering the telecom industry. To see more of his articles, please visit Patrick Barnard’s columnist page.

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