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Google, Telecom Execs Stir Up The Internet Access Debate On Capitol Hill

The issue is network neutrality: Should telecom and cable companies charge premiums for companies like Google and Skype that benefit from broadband pipes?
The phone and cable companies have been very vocal in recent months about Internet access. They think Internet service companies like Google, eBay and Vonage should have to pay more to get to better service on the broadband pipes the access companies have built out. If the hundreds of people snaked outside and packed into room 562 at the Dirksen Senate Building this morning are any indication, it's an issue that's only going to heat up.

The looming fight over tiers of differentiated service brought several Internet big shots, telecommunications industry representatives and academics to Capitol Hill today to testify on the principle of network neutrality. Network neutrality proponents say information networks must be open and not discriminate between services and applications. On the other side, telecommunications and cable companies note they've paid out big bucks for extensive broadband networks that are still being built, and that it's from those pipes that Internet service providers benefit.

Internet and VoIP players argue that they need to be allowed unfettered access to the Web in order to accelerate innovation and maintain their own livelihoods. If it were not for the open model of the Internet where anyone who wants to put up a service or Website can, they say, Google, Skype and their ilk may never have been born.

"The Internet’s open, neutral architecture has proven to be an enormous engine for market innovation, economic growth, social discourse, and the free flow of ideas," Vint Cerf, one of the Internet's founding fathers and VP at Google, told members of the Senate Commerce Committee. "Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success."

Although Internet service providers disagree, telecommunications companies say they have no plans to block, impede, or degrade service. They say they only need to be able to change pricing schemes for Internet service providers in order to keep rolling out broadband. "If broadband providers are to continue to make these investments, and if consumers are going to be given the levels of services and innovative new products and features they desire, all at prices they can afford," said National Cable and Telecommunications Association President and CEO Kyle McSlarrow, "broadband providers need to have continuing flexibility to innovate in the business models and pricing plans they employ."

It's still early in the discussion on Capitol Hill, and while Democrats on the Commerce Committee like Barbara Boxer, Calif., clearly come down on the side of Internet companies, several of the Senators today were trying to grasp more of the issue rather than grandstanding. "We have a real tough job ahead," Senator Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told a group of reporters after the hearing. He'd earlier wished aloud that there was much more time to debate the issues at hand.

Commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission have been kicking the network neutrality ball around for a few months now, with not much to show for it. But those debates may escalate soon even on the Hill, as several Congressmen, including Stevens, have discussed broad transformation of the nation's telecommunications laws to complement the shifting communication paradigms of the Internet generation. Others have proposed more limited changes. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., announced today that he will soon be introducing a bill that would assure that information from one company is treated no differently from information from a second company, and that those who provide Internet access will not give preferential treatment to their own traffic over that of third parties like Yahoo.