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Net Neutrality Returns To Top Of Washington's Agenda

The debate reignited this week as the FCC preps for a hearing on net neutrality and lawmakers introduce a bill on the issue.

After nearly one relatively dormant year, network neutrality is back on top of the technology agenda in Washington, as the Federal Communications Commission examined the issue and lawmakers introduced a new net neutrality bill.

The debate reignited this week as the FCC closed its public comment period on network and traffic management; Comcast revealed it does manage file-sharing traffic on its networks; and U.S. Reps. Ed Markey and Charles Pickering introduced new legislation on the topic. AT&T and other ISPs have also weighed in on the debate.

Mitch Bowling, SVP and general manager of Comcast's online services, previously responded to criticism of the company's network management practices by stating that the company does not block peer-to-peer services. However, he has also said that Comcast uses the latest technologies to manage its network to make sure that file sharing and peer-to-peer activity don't degrade broadband access for other customers.

This week, Comcast filed an 80-page statement with the FCC saying it preserves net neutrality by managing upload protocols that have a demonstrated history of generating excessive burdens, only doing so during peak traffic times and when customers aren't simultaneously downloading. Comcast also explained that the delays only last until use drops below "an established threshold of simultaneous unidirectional sessions."

Critics have contended that Comcast's practices discriminate against some users. Comcast denies that there is anything discriminatory (or that violates network neutrality principles) about the way it manages traffic.

While the FCC examines net neutrality, Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has introduced the Internet Freedom Act of 2008 with Pickering, a Missouri Republican.

Hands Off the Internet, a group opposed to Internet regulation, said it has "cautious confidence" in the Markey bill, which proposes further study of the issue.

"On its face we agree with the concept of a study; Hands Off the Internet has always supported efforts to gather public opinion," the group's co-chairs, Mike McCurry and Chris Wolf, said in an announcement. "However, we are concerned that an effort to seek public input is intended to be a stalking horse for federal Internet regulation. The continued push by special interests to regulate Internet neutrality undercuts the best hope Net users have for faster, more affordable broadband."

The group said private companies must be free to innovate and deploy technology to meet growing bandwidth demands. It added that net neutrality laws would create uncertainty for investors and ISPs.

The Open Internet Coalition and Save the Internet, two groups promoting laws to make sure providers don't base delivery of Internet services on the type or source of content, support the bill.

The FCC plans to hold a hearing on net neutrality and network management on Feb. 26.

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