House panel OKs 'network neutrality'
(Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) May 26--WASHINGTON -- The House Judiciary Committee voted 20-13 on Thursday to keep telephone and cable companies from imposing fees on businesses that use their wires to connect with customers.
That was good news for Google Inc., eBay Inc. and other online companies, and consumer groups were thrilled as well.
The lawmakers "voted to protect our rights to an open Internet," Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a public interest group, said in a statement. "Many struggles remain, but we have won a key battle."
The part of her statement that phone and cable companies would agree with is that many struggles remain on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are still making their way through a maze of legislative options as they try to decide whether, and how, to preserve "network neutrality" for Internet users.
Many Democrats and a fair number of Republicans want legislation to require providers of high-speed Internet access to treat all Web sites and services in a neutral way. They believe a phone company should continue to give a DSL subscriber the same level of speedy service whether she is using Google Video or YouTube to view a video.
This camp warns that giving big phone and cable companies the power to act as gatekeepers could change the basic character of the Internet. Big, established Internet companies would gain a huge advantage over start-ups that can't afford such fees, they say, and consumers would be deprived of the innovations that these start-ups are now able to put forward on a level playing field.
However, phone and cable companies say they need to charge fees to the companies using their wires most heavily. Under that scenario, if Google were to pay up, then its videos would download more quickly than its competitors'.
The broadband providers say that would pay for a dramatic upgrade of the nation's Internet infrastructure.
"Radical Net neutrality proposals would chill the investment climate for broadband networks, deter and delay broadband rollout and lock in today's Internet architecture and levels of performance," said Tom Tauke, executive vice president for Verizon Communications Inc., a phone company.
Members of Congress agree that the issue is momentous, but they are far from a consensus.
The bill approved Thursday by the House Judiciary Committee treats network neutrality as an antitrust matter and would require broadband service providers to abide by tough network neutrality principles.
"The FCC recently reported that 98 percent of American consumers get their high-speed broadband from either a cable company or a DSL provider," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the panel's chairman and the bill's sponsor. If Congress doesn't act, then broadband providers will be free to "preselect, favor or prioritize Internet content."
When the telecom reform legislation comes up for a House vote in coming weeks, Sensenbrenner is expected to offer his bill as a floor amendment. A separate House panel, the Energy and Commerce Committee, already has approved a Net neutrality provision as part of its telecom reform legislation.
Consumer groups had wanted something tougher than that provision, which gives the Federal Communications Commission power to investigate Web-site blocking abuses after the fact.
But the Senate Commerce Committee, which held a separate hearing on Net neutrality Thursday, barely touches on the issue in its competing telecom reform legislation.
The bill offered by Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) merely calls for the FCC to do an annual study on it. Unhappy with that approach, committee members Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) have introduced a tougher network neutrality bill that they want incorporated into the telecom legislation, which the committee will vote on next month.
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