Whatever Happened to Net Neutrality?

Analysis: Once the most controversial tech issue in Washington, net neutrality is now mostly forgotten.

A year ago, network neutrality was roiling Capitol Hill. From Congress to the Federal Communications Commission to the Federal Trade Commission, there wasnt a hotter—or more controversial—tech issue. Today, net neutrality barely raises a yawn among lawmakers.

Then, as now, the issue centers around the potential ability of traditional telecom carriers to charge content, service and application providers based on bandwidth consumption, a practice that Yahoo, Google and others say amounts to price discrimination.

Proponents of net neutrality—mostly Democrats backed by a massive Web-based grassroots campaign—want legislation prohibiting broadband carriers like AT&T and Comcast from discriminatory practices in handling commercial Internet traffic.

The then Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate envisioned in 2006 approving a massive telecom reform bill featuring a national video franchising provision for telecom providers. The idea was to fire up competition to cable television rates by providing a single, national license for telecom carriers rolling out video offerings.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats got what they wanted. While the telecom reform bill—sans any net neutrality provisions—passed the House, the whole legislative package unraveled in the Senate, sunk by the controversy over net neutrality.

When Democrats took over both chambers earlier this year, Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, promptly re-introduced net neutrality legislation, and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the new chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, began holding hearings.

Since then, though, there has been little momentum for net neutrality.

"Theyre waiting to fight another day. I dont see signs of it coming back. Theres no political will," said Tom Galvin, a partner at Washingtons 463 Communications.

For lawmakers, net neutrality has always been a confusing issue, a solution in search of a problem, as critics contend. After all, the FCC in 2005 approved a set of net neutrality principles for consumers.


Click here to read more about the FCC and net neutrality.

According to the FCC, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice, in addition to running applications and services of their choice. In addition, consumers have the right to plug in and run legal devices of their choice. The FCC also said consumers have a right to competition among network providers, application and service providers and content providers.

That leaves the net neutrality fight, in the eyes of many in Congress, as a potential rate dispute between wealthy carriers and content providers.

Further dampening Congressional enthusiasm for net neutrality is a June report by the FTC urging lawmakers to proceed cautiously, if at all, on the issue.

"Policy makers should be wary of calls for net neutrality regulation," the report states. "We do not know what the net effects of potential conduct by broadband providers will be on consumers."

The FTC added, "Similarly, we do not know what net effects regulation to proscribe such conduct would have on consumers. This is the inherent difficulty in regulating based on concerns about conduct that has not occurred, especially in a dynamic marketplace."

For a Congress that still has a year to run and major issues of war, shaky financial markets and presidential campaigns ramping up, the FTC report gives policy makers the political cover to dodge the issue.

As Art Brodsky, communications director of Public Knowledge, the Internet advocacy group that has long championed net neutrality, recently commented from Washington: "As a discrete issue, it has seen its day."


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