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Sen. Wyden Unveils ‘Internet Nondiscrimination Act of 2006’
[March 02, 2006]

Sen. Wyden Unveils ‘Internet Nondiscrimination Act of 2006’

TMCnet Associate Editor

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) today introduced the Internet Nondiscrimination Act of 2006 - legislation which will ensure “net neutrality,” or equal delivery of content on the Internet, for consumers and business interests.

Under the proposed bill, network operators would be prohibited from charging companies for faster delivery of their content to consumers over the Internet - or favoring certain content over others.

“Creating a two-tiered system could have a chilling effect on small mom and pop businesses that can’t afford the priority lane, leaving these smaller businesses no hope of competing against the Wal-Marts of the world,” Wyden said in a prepared statement today. “Neutrality in technology enables small businesses to thrive on the Internet, and allows folks to start small and dream big, and that’s what I want to protect with this legislation.”

Sen. Wyden’s bill is in response to increasing pressure from major U.S. telecommunications companies, including AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon, that the Internet be divided into two “tiers” – one for high speed delivery of voice, video and data, which could be accessed for a fee, and another, “common man’s tier,” for everything else. The concept of charging for faster delivery of data, however, has turned out to be extremely controversial.

The call for a two-tiered Internet stems from the fact that the Web is increasingly being used for the delivery of voice and video signals, which suck up huge amounts of bandwidth. As Voice-over-IP and IPTV deployments increase, the Internet’s “pipes” are increasingly becoming congested with packets of data, which in turn will eventually have an impact on the Internet’s performance. (Adding to this is the fact that roughly 40 percent of the Internet’s total bandwidth is now being used to download video, music and software to users’ home computers and portable devices.)

Because the major telecommunications companies have built a majority of the Internet’s infrastructure – at tremendous cost – they are arguing that service and content providers seeking to deliver new, advanced services to their customers shouldn’t get a “free ride” across their pipes. Instead, they want to build a second tier – for which they could charge access fees – not only so that these voice and video packets can be delivered efficiently (without impacting the rest of the Internet’s performance), but also so they can recoup on their investments as they further upgrade their networks.

Opponents of the proposal claim that by charging access fees, the major telecommunications companies are, in effect, doing away with the concept of “net neutrality.” Today, the Internet operates on a “best efforts” basis, meaning that data flows freely and network operators do not exercise control over which data gets to its destination first. Many argue that this is what has led to the Internet’s huge success: Small start-ups can compete against big companies because their data can be accessed just as easily.

But today’s new packet-based technologies enable service and network providers to “adjust” their networks to give preference to certain types of data (video data, for example, generally needs to be delivered in a steady stream to enable proper playback on a user’s computer or TV – if it gets “hung up” somewhere, then the signal is interrupted – so it is often given “priority” on a service provider’s network). Opponents claim that giving the major carriers a second, “paid” tier would give them an unfair advantage: Small companies seeking to deliver voice and video services could end up being priced out of the market because of the access fees (or they would at least have a hard time competing against companies which could afford “express delivery” of their services). In addition, opponents argue that a second tier would enable the major carriers to pick and choose which content gets prioritized – and that the major carriers could end up prioritizing their data over that of other companies.

Wyden’s bill would prohibit network operators from interfering with, blocking, degrading, altering, modifying or changing traffic on the Internet. It also will prevent them from creating a “priority lane” where content providers can buy quicker access to customers, while those who do not pay the fee are left in the “slow lane.”

The bill also will provide a legal framework which will allow consumers to choose which whichever devices they want to connect to the Internet (providing that they do no harm).  It will also ensure that consumers have non-discriminatory access and service; and will facilitate a “transparent system” in which consumers, Internet content, and applications companies have equal access to the rates, terms, and conditions for Internet service.

The Wyden legislation also ensures that network operators can continue to protect subscribers against unwanted spam, spyware, viruses, pornography and other programs, and ensures that they can respond to emergencies and court-ordered law enforcement needs.

Additionally, the legislation provides for a complaint-filing process before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in which an aggrieved party can file a written complaint. If the FCC accepts the complaint, the burden of proof is on the network operator to show it did not violate the law. The FCC must reach a decision in 90 days.  The penalties are the same as those in the Communications Act, and the potential fines are stiff enough to encourage compliance.

“It’s wrong to create an information superhighway that’s strewn with discriminatory hurdles,” Wyden said. “Today, I have introduced legislation to stop the powerful interests who control access to the Internet from picking winners and losers on the Internet.  This bill is for consumers, innovators and small businesses – it’s all about equal access for everyone: the same access, the same content, for the same price.”

Wyden is the original co-author of the Internet Tax Nondiscrimination law as well as numerous other laws protecting against spyware and spam.

Wyden’s bill may end up being bundled into a larger bill when Congress takes up the issue of revising the Communications Act of 1996, which may occur later in this year’s “short” legislative session.

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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