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Congress Argues Net Neutrality

At issue is how much control telecom companies should have over the Internet content on their public networks. Some say they should be able to give priority to content providers who pay the most, while others say such practices will block out new technologies and companies.

The network neutrality tango is in full swing. Congress members on both sides of the political aisle and in both houses are introducing legislation and debating the merits of regulating how telecommunications providers can treat content on their public networks.

Everybody seems to agree on one thing: Carriers shouldn't be allowed to block or degrade online services or content. Beyond that, forces are gathering on all sides, with a bristly debate over whether carriers should be able to offer differentiated services to content providers that can afford them, a concept known as tiering. There's even a question as to whether it's a good idea to put the authority to regulate provision of Internet content in the hands of Congress.

A wide-ranging telecommunications bill by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Tex., that includes network neutrality provisions moves to mark-up tomorrow in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Barton's bill would give the FCC power to act to uphold principles of network neutrality, but not the authority to make rules.

The FCC is united against blocking services, but more divided on tiering. "If providers with bottleneck control can erect tolls, that inverts the entire democratic network of the Internet," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said yesterday at the Freedom to Connect conference in Silver Spring, Md. "It makes the pipe intelligent and the end user dumb." However, Copps' vision clashes with that of current Chairman Kevin Martin, who has publicly said carriers should be free to offer tiered services.

Some in Congress don't feel Barton's bill goes far enough, saying a tiered system of differentiated services wouldn't be covered and would ultimately hurt entrepreneurs and consumers. "Today there are Google-wannabes in a garage getting started," Rep. Richard Boucher, D-Va., told conference attendees. "How is [a] Google wannabe going to pay a fee to get into every potential provider's home? They're not going to be able to become established in the slow lane, with Google and others in the fast lane." Boucher and three other Democratic members of Congress plan to introduce an amendment to the Barton bill to outlaw the tiered model. To pass the amendment, it will need Republican support, which Boucher says it has.

Despite the Congressional battle, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell cautions that Congress doesn't always make sound decisions about technology. "They have a very shallow understanding [of network neutrality]," he says, adding that this shortfall might make them more pliable to experienced telecom lobbyists. In Powell's mind, the solution to those who have concerns about network neutrality isn't legislation, but creating new Internet access paths like wireless and giving the FCC more regulatory power.

Though legislative aides at the Freedom to Connect conference admitted that legislators need more education and the debate is long from over, Powell's thinking probably won't fly in Congress. "We have to have something in any bill we do that defines what we can do about net neutrality," said Dana Lichtenberg, aide for Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.

In addition to the House Commerce committee, the House Judiciary committee will convene its own meeting on Friday, focusing on how antitrust regulations apply to network neutrality in today's changing telecommunications landscape. However, this meeting could also set the stage for a jurisdictional showdown with the Commerce committee on questions of network neutrality. The House will also have to meld its network neutrality plans with those on the Senate side, where Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has introduced legislation.

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