No net neutrality in Internet franchise bill passing Stevens' committee


Washington (DC) - It may not have shocked a single senator whatsoever on the powerful Commerce Committee that the bill put forth by its chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens (R - Alaska), survived three days of markup session debates without having been amended by any of various measures that would have enforced so-called net neutrality. The original purpose of the measure would have been to disable legislation such as the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act (COPE) currently being debated, from enabling Internet service providers from charging content providers varying rates for different qualities of service or bandwidth consumption.

In committee votes taken late yesterday, the most prominent net neutrality amendment (there were several) offered by Senators Byron Dorgan (D - North Dakota) and Olympia Snowe (R - Maine) and supported by Sen. John Kerry (D - Mass.), was defeated in a tie vote of 11 - 11, with Snowe the lone supporting Republican. The Senate Committee-approved language was then passed by a vote of 15 - 7, and now the bill proceeds to the floor of the Senate. A similar House bill, introduced as the "Network Neutrality Act" before being offered as an amendment to the COPE bill, never escaped the Commerce Committee.

The way technology just happens to be, most broadband Internet service is provided to Americans via cable television (CATV) or DSL lines. The way US law just happens to be, the rights for CATV and DSL providers to serve their customers is delegated among individual localities and municipalities, with some statewide exceptions. So if an ISP wants to expand its territory, it currently must petition state and local governments individually, sometimes for licenses that cover areas no greater than a few square blocks. And that petition must be for television service, with broadband Internet being a piggy-backed feature that just goes along for the ride.

Up until last April, Congress had been considering a bill which would have reformed the Communications Act of 1934 to enable ISPs to seek national franchises to deploy broadband Internet service, piggy-backing on no other class of service at all. But at that time, Rep. Joe Barton (R - Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, scrapped the bill on the table, and rushed in just a few hours' time a draft of what would become the COPE bill. COPE treats broadband providers and cable providers as essentially the same entities, although amendments since added to the bill allow for "stand-alone broadband service" providers as a separate class.

The distinction in the language between the old and new bills goes to the heart of the net neutrality debates - the one before Congress, and the one being played out in the public arena. The bill COPE replaced would have placed strict limits on a national licensee's ability to charge varying rates to customers for varying grades of service, mandating that all customers be charged equivalently for bandwidth consumption. Nothing even remotely close to that language appears in COPE, which is what makes the new bill attractive to potential national licensees.

The attraction is this: In order to make national licenses feasible in the first place, licensees such as Comcast and Cox Communications will need to build out broadband service capabilities to remote, rural regions. Without net neutrality provisions in place, licensees could effectively charge the larger content providers more for the use of bandwidth. In exchange, such providers - which would presumably include Yahoo, AOL, MSN, and Google - could be granted higher-tier or "fast lane" access, which would not be available for lower-grade bandwidth users.

In her speech introducing the amendment to committee on Monday, Sen. Snowe said, "No sooner than the non-discrimination principle was removed, executives of every major telephone and cable company announced intentions to charge Web sites for access for priority Internet delivery service. In other words, establish a class system for the Internet, with the 'haves' able to afford to pay this toll for their Web sites traveling the fast lane, and the 'have-nots' relegated to the breakdown lane. To make matters worse, there is nothing to guarantee that a network operator will offer space on the fast lane - at any price - to those who require it to survive.

"Removal of the Internet's founding principle," Snowe continued, "will quell innovation and centralize the fate of the Internet into the hands of the few. It will no longer be the World Wide Web, but rather a monopolistic and duopolistic-controlled network."