The legislation could determine whether the Internet remains accessible to content providers on a non-discriminatory basis.
Lawmakers charged with overseeing telecommunications are poised to vote on the most controversial legislative measure in telecom this year: network neutrality.
The measure, which could determine whether the Internet remains accessible to content providers on a non-discriminatory basis, is slated to come up for a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives by mid-May.
The legislation is scheduled for a vote in the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet on April 5, in what is expected to be a marathon session that could last into the next day, said Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va.
Net neutrality is just one section of a bill that focuses primarily on the Bell Operating Companies efforts to move into the residential video service.
Under the bill, the Federal Communications Commission would have the authority to enforce four currently unenforceable net neutrality principles that the agency announced last fall.
If a network operator were to violate one of the principlesfor example, if an ISP decided to block VOIP (voice over IP) trafficthe aggrieved party could lodge a complaint with the FCC, which would adjudicate it.
The problem with this scenario, for many lawmakers, is that it does not stop the telephone companies from advancing a stated plan to charge large content providers for premium traffic deliverya plan that Boucher said would give the telcos own content preferential treatment.
"What the telephone companies are essentially proposing is a two-lane Internet," Boucher said in an address before pulver.coms Freedom2Connect conference in Silver Spring, Md., on April 4.
"Everybody else is going to be relegated to the slow lane."
Boucher said that the telephone companies plan is an effort to extend their market power from the transport of content to content itself.
The fear is that it will dampen innovation by creating a financial disincentive for new content providers to launch new services.
"It wasnt very long ago that Google was in a garage getting started," Boucher said.
"[Startups] are companies that have to give their services away for a long time in order to become established. It may be harder for them to acquire capital to start up."
While the future is always unknown, lawmakers dont have the luxury of waiting and seeing what will happen, because once the telephone companies establish a revenue stream from charging a fee for premium delivery, it will be almost impossible to outlaw it, Boucher said.
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The telephone companies have publicly stated that they do not plan to block any legal Internet content, but rivals fear that they could engage in less direct ways of putting rival content at a disadvantage.
If, for example, network operators wanted to discriminate indirectly against VOIP traffic, they could deliberately add jitter to the network, which would be essentially undetectable by data traffic but would render VOIP effectively unusable, said Ed Felton, professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University.
"There are things that an ISP can do that are engineering trade-offs. The concern is that those could have a discriminatory impact," Felton said.
"You need to worry about back-handed discrimination or discrimination thats difficult to distinguish from well-intentioned engineering trade-offs."
Among numerous amendments that are expected to be offered to the net neutrality measure is one co-sponsored by Boucher and Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Jay Inslee, D-Wash.
Under the amendment, if a telephone company provides fast-lane treatment for any content, they must offer the same treatment for all content at no extra charge.
The legislation is likely to spur a close vote in subcommittee, but the chances are "quite good" that some version of the bill will pass the House this spring, Boucher said.
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