The New Net Neut Lite

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2008-02-14

The New Net Neut Lite

Network neutrality re-emerged on Capitol Hill Feb. 13 as a political issue, although it is playing in the shallow end of the telecom reform pool. Call it network neutrality lite.

Under legislation introduced by Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Mississippi Republican Chip Pickering, the Federal Communications Commission's network neutrality principles would be "enshrined" into law and become "guide stars" for U.S. broadband policy.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act (H.R. 5353) would also direct the FCC to hold eight public summits in a year to examine the current broadband marketplace and consumer rights.

That's a much different policy approach than Markey was pushing two years ago as the ranking minority member on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Then, Markey proposed an amendment to a telecom reform bill favored by the majority Republicans that would prohibit broadband providers from charging content and service providers different rates based on bandwidth consumption.

Unlike the Markey statutory language approach, Republicans favor allowing the FCC to determine network neutrality complaints against broadband providers on a case-by-case basis. In urging committee members to vote for his amendment, Markey said, "This is the moment. You can't go back from here."

Turns out, you can. Markey's amendment was defeated at both the committee level and in a full House vote. A similar measure was defeated in the Senate Commerce Committee. The Republicans' telco reform bill also ultimately failed, leaving the matter where it began: in the hands of the FCC.

Since those votes, the Democrats have taken control of the House and the Senate and Markey is the chairman of the Telecommunications and Internet subcommittee. More than a year after taking over the panel, Markey finally introduced his long-promised network neutrality bill.

"The bill contains no requirements for regulations on the Internet whatsoever," Markey said Feb. 13. "It does, however, suggest that the principles which have guided the Internet's development and expansion are highly worthy of retention."

In other words, Markey's bill is far less ambitious than his 2006 proposal. The bill is so mellowed out from two years ago that Pickering, who voted against Markey's network neutrality amendment, is co-sponsoring the legislation.

Benign Legislation

"Unreasonable discrimination by Internet providers is not currently a widespread problem, and isolated abuses have been addressed by the marketplace and the FCC," Pickering said in a statement. "This will allow the market to grow as the industry voluntarily maintains these freedoms, while providing oversight and accountability for maintaining openness and competitive choice."

Pickering, it should be noted, is retiring from Congress this year to take a Republican K Street lobbying job. Perhaps a veil has been lifted from Pickering's eyes or he's simply keeping a Republican hand in shaping broadband policy.

"We need to seek solutions like this one that expand freedom, competition and consumer choice rather than go down the road of unnecessary Internet regulation, while still providing a public process of accountability that ensures continued Internet openness and freedom," Pickering said.

Even the telcos seem a bit benign on Markey's legislation. Two days before Markey introduced his bill, Verizon Executive Vice President Tom Tauke told reporters that while he doesn't see the need for congressional action on network neutrality, guidelines for the industry would be helpful.

With or without the telcos' support, though, Markey's bill is not likely to become law in the 110th Congress, which hopes to adjourn and hit the campaign trail as shortly after Labor Day as possible. Even if Markey gets the bill out of committee and the House, the legislation would have to be approved by the Senate.

Senators Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, have already introduced their own network neutrality legislation, a far more ambitious bill that would prohibit broadband carriers from discriminatory practices such as pricing in handling traffic from Internet content, application and service providers.

The bill would also require carriers to offer consumers individual broadband service that is not bundled with television or telephone service.

Other Democrats signing onto Dorgan-Snowe legislation include presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

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