Net Neutrality Puts Time Crunch On Telecom Agenda - InformationWeek

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6/2/2006
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Net Neutrality Puts Time Crunch On Telecom Agenda

Providers have about 20 days to push for changes to cable franchising rules and universal service fees.

Time is running out for Congress to pass several telecommunications rule changes this year because the changes are tied to another contentious issue: network neutrality.

Since net neutrality is holding the telecommunications agenda hostage, the idea of compromise legislation is catching on.

"As sand runs out of the hour glass, compromises are reached," said Thaddeus Strom, vice president of congressional relations for Parry, Romani, DeConcini & Symms.

Panelists at Cowen and Company's Technology Conference in New York City said Friday that providers have about 20 days to push for changes to cable franchising rules and universal service fees.

"It's a question of finding floor time," said Strom, whose powerful lobbying firm represents Verizon.

And, there are several obstacles to overcome.

Committee chairs are vying for jurisdictional control over net neutrality also called Internet neutrality. Members are drafting and revising several bills to guarantee equal access to networks or to protect providers' ability to charge more for better access and improved networks.

As a challenging election season approaches, lobbyists are applying pressure from both sides. If Congress cannot get one version to the floor, and soon, members are likely to turn their attention away from telecommunications issues during recesses, budgeting and campaigns.

Then there is the threat of returning to a more net neutrality-friendly congress – one controlled by Democrats in one house or both. Political strategists believe, and telecommunications lobbyists acknowledge, that voters could sweep out Republican incumbents over national issues.

"There's certainly speculation about a sea-change in the control," Strom said.

While several Republicans favor legislation aimed at preserving neutrality, Democrats are not jumping to the aid of telecommunications companies.

That means it could be a better strategy for telecommunications providers to make some concessions on net neutrality now, in a more certain environment.

"It will probably be more than they want because it's the only way to get legislation passed this year," said Chris McKee, vice president and assistant general counsel of Covad Communications Group, a broadband voice and data communications provider.

Strom said compromise legislation, which could be introduced next week, would likely include promises not to block, degrade or modify network access. The House Rules Committee is likely to decide next week whether to send an existing net neutrality bill to the floor.

Mike Wendy, media relations manager for the Computing Industry Association, said that net neutrality bills could impose "onerous telephone-like, or more complicated, regulation," on caching speeds, access requirements, rate regulations and application regulation.

He said regulation should not be a default, but a last resort after the free market, technology and federal watchdogs fail to protect consumers

"We just haven't been there thus far," he said during an interview Friday.

He said he hopes compromise legislation does not impose restrictions on growth because the net has not relied on legislation to develop.

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