Most witnesses debate the real meaning of "net neutrality," while pushing their own agendas.
WASHINGTONMembers of the U.S. Senate heard from the telecom industry and others in what was the final hearing on its version of a new telecom bill.
This is the only hearing since the U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar bill during the week of June 5. The Senate bill, called the "Consumers Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006," aims to make changes to current laws in the area of Internet regulation, access to television programming and support for new services including new types of wireless access.
Because the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has already had two hearings on its version of the telecom bill, the hearing on June 13 mainly involved the House version of the bill, as well as a couple of hot topics that have been the subject of nearly constant television, radio and newspaper ads in Washington over the past month.
Those topics were "Net Neutrality" and access to television programming via cable, satellite or through the phone company.
Access to cable television and the Internet in small communities was a particular focus. "Companies are not making broadband available to small communities," said Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
He said that the initial version of the Senate bill had a number of obstacles to communities that wanted broadband service, but that the current version, as well as the bill passed in the House, meant that communities could create their own broadband access.
"They have to give notice," Lautenberg said, pointing out that communities also had to give private industry a chance to bid on a broadband access project. But in any case, a community could implement Wi-Fi based access to the Internet as a number of cities including Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco have already done.
Lautenberg also noted that the Senate wants to increase competition in access to television. He said that what the Senate shouldnt do is allow companies to cherry pick consumers, and leave out the audience it doesnt want.
"We must make sure that all users, not just the affluent, get access," he said.
The question of "net neutrality" came up repeatedly in discussions, both from witnesses and from the members of the committee. However, it was clear from the discussions that there was little agreement on what that actually is.
For example, John Rutledge, a consultant to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that "net neutrality" means that everyone has access to the Internet, but that its acceptable for companies to charge more for better access.
Rutledge pointed out that people who want a faster delivery service have the same option. "Its like FedEx or Express Mail versus regular mail," he said.
He said that both will deliver a letter, but if you want to get it their faster, you can pay extra.
Others took the opposite tack. Ben Scott, policy director for the Free Press, a consumer advocacy group associated with Consumers Union, said that more regulation was necessary so that all consumers would have fast, affordable access to the Internet.
He suggested that a package of regulations similar to those in place for phone companies might do the trick. Such regulations, he said, would assure "net neutrality."
After hearing the descriptions, Sen. Lautenberg remarked that it was clear that there was no agreement on what "net neutrality" means.
"We need to revise our description," he said. "Were getting it confused."
Chairman Ted Stevens had similar feelings regarding the meaning of the term, and was particularly annoyed at the suggestions by the Free Press organization that it meant more regulation.
Click here to listen to eWEEK Senior Writer Wayne Rash ask Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens what net neutrality means.
Finally, Stevens made clear his annoyance to Scott, saying, "This committee is not going to put common carrier provisions on all communications."
Stevens then reiterated his belief that keeping the Internet as free as possible from unnecessary regulation was critical to innovation and to the growth of the Internet.
During a brief round of hearings with a second panel, the committee asked Christopher Putala, Earthlinks executive vice president for public policy, about Net Neutrality.
Departing from his prepared text, Putala said that it seemed that each witness viewed non-discrimination in network access as a way to level the playing field with the competition.
"We agree with all of them," he said with a chuckle.
Putala also said that Earthlink feels that the law should not require phone service to buyers of DSL-based Internet access.
"Why make a consumer buy a phone for $25 a month when they dont need it?" he asked.
After the hearings, Sen. Stevens announced that the markup session for the bill, in which the committee makes changes as a result of testimony and in some cases to reconcile it with the House bill, would be rescheduled.
Originally it was set for June 20. Stevens said that a new date for the committees meeting would be announced later.
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Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.