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U.S. Senate to Take Up ‘Net Neutrality’ Issue Again Tomorrow
[March 01, 2006]

U.S. Senate to Take Up ‘Net Neutrality’ Issue Again Tomorrow

TMCnet Associate Editor

Congress is expected to once again debate the issue of “net neutrality” tomorrow, when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) will introduce legislation calling for a “toll free” Internet.

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.

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.

Sen. Wyden’s bill will, in his own words, “make sure all information (transmitted over broadband networks) is made available on the same terms so that no bit is better than another one.” The provisions would bar the major carriers and other broadband providers from favoring one company’s s content over another. This would eliminate the possibility that broadband providers could give their own content preferential treatment. It would also prevent the creation of “private networks that are superior to the Internet access they offer consumers generally.”

Sen. Wyden, an advocate of responsible and consumer-friendly technology growth, will be discussing the proposed bill with the media via conference call at 1:30 p.m. (EST) tomorrow.

Sen. Wyden testified before U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the issue of net neutrality about a month ago. During his testimony, he pointed out that Congress approved the Internet Tax Freedom Act (which he said really should have been called the Internet Nondiscrimination Act) 10 years ago. The principle behind the bill, he said, was technological neutrality – that companies shouldn’t be allowed to tax the online world differently than the off-line world. He pointed out that the passage of that law helped lead to the success the Internet is seeing today.

“Now there is another challenge facing the Net that also needs to be tackled in a bipartisan way,” Sen. Wyden said in his testimony. “Powerful interests who own the pipes and access to the Internet are trying to break the Net. These special interests want to expand their control over Internet access to the limitless world of content, where consumers play online games, watch online TV and enjoy video.”

Sen. Wyden said there is a huge benefit in allowing consumers to use the broadband they have paid for to visit whatever content they want – a point which resounded with opponents to the concept of a two-tiered Internet. The fundamental problem, he said, is that as soon as you start charging access fees, you open the possibility that users will no longer have free and unfettered access to whatever content they want.

“Some of these cable and phone companies are trying to discriminate in the delivery of content,” Sen Wyden said in his testimony. “They are saying that instead of making available to everyone the same content at the same price, they want to set up sweetheart arrangements to play favorites. This is a fundamental shift in the way the Internet works. Small start-up companies and scores of others have been able to start small and dream big because every user has had equal access to all websites. I want to keep it that way.”

Sen Wyden claims his bill will ensure that all information is made available on the same terms, “so that no bit is better than another one.”

“First, it will assure that information from a company like J. Crew is not treated worse than information from a company like LL Bean,” he said. “Second, it will assure that a company like Comcast that offers Internet access does not give preferential treatment to its own information bits compared to information bits from another company, like Yahoo. Third, broadband service providers should not be able to create private networks that are superior to the Internet access they offer consumers generally. These principles would prevent Internet access providers from tipping the competitive advantage toward their own services, such as phone calls over the Internet (VoIP) or television over the Internet.”

He added that “consumer groups and the technology community are four-square behind the notion that neutrality is the best policy when it comes to the Internet, and I will continue to work closely with them on this legislation.”

During the same hearing, Vinton Cerf, a father of the Internet and a top Google executive, said charging for a second tier of Internet service would dampen innovation and hinder the United States’ competitiveness in the world market.

“We must do all we can to preserve the fundamental enabling principles of the Internet: user choice, innovation, and global competitiveness,” said Cerf, a former senior vice president for technology strategy at MCI.

One thing is for certain: When Sen. Wyden introduces his bill, he will have a lot of support behind him. Not only are major content providers such as Google and Yahoo opposed to the idea of a two-tiered Internet, several other U.S. Senators, including Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, have also expressed their objections to the concept.

Referring to a recent Washington Post article in which a Verizon executive said Google and others shouldn’t expect to enjoy a “free lunch” on its pipes, Dorgan said such reasoning was flawed.

“It is not a free lunch ... (broadband subscribers have) already paid the monthly toll ... Those lines and that access is being paid for by the consumer.”

But there’s one thing that has become abundantly clear: Whether the major carriers get their second tier or not, the multitude of networks that make up the Internet will need to be upgraded in order to speed delivery of voice and video data – and that cost will ultimately be passed onto consumers, no matter what Congress decides.

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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