Lawmakers overseeing telecommunications said that they want to quickly pass legislation prohibiting federal regulators from creating any rules on “network neutrality,” a principle that is inconsistently defined but generally suggests that network owners cannot block legal content provided by third parties.
The net neutrality legislation is part of a House telecom competition bill that deals primarily with the Bell Operating Companies (for example, Verizons and AT&Ts) efforts to make inroads in the residential video market.
The net neutrality provision, which was heavily contested during a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet on March 30, would prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from writing rules to enforce neutral treatment of Internet content by owners of the last mile network connections, namely, the Bells.
The controversy is rooted in remarks made by Bell chief executives last year that they intend to charge a fee to large content providers for premium delivery.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the subcommittee, said that he plans to hold a vote on the bill next week, and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said that he plans to bring the bill for a vote in the full committee in four to five weeks.
After asking eight witnesses at the hearing to define net neutrality and receiving eight different answers, Barton said that the bill is a “pretty good start” because the FCC would be permitted to address complaints about the network owners on a case-by-case basis.
“We dont even have a universally recognized definition of what [net neutrality] is,” Barton said.
Opposition to the measure comes primarily from Democrats, who said that the FCC must be allowed to establish net neutrality rules to prevent the evolution of a two-tiered Internet access system in which only the wealthy enjoy fast service.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that by charging content providers a fee, the telephone companies would artificially constrain the supply of Internet content, which would have a chilling effect on investment and innovation.
“This represents nothing more than the imposition of a broadband bottleneck tax on electronic commerce,” Markey said.
“The bill imperils the future of electronic commerce and innovation to the world wide whims of broadband barons and ties the hands of the agency in a way that will legally prevent it from saving something very special.”
Charging that the bill would endorse a practice that would undermine the openness of the Internet, Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., said that small companies and startups would no longer be able to compete with large, established providers.
“Im deeply concerned that this two-lane plan will have a dramatic adverse effect on innovation,” Boucher said.
Amazon.com, one of the Internets largest content providers, does not support the bill, said Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy at Amazon.com.
Unless Congress acts soon, the phone companies and cable companies will fundamentally alter the communications landscape, he said.
The strongest objections to the net neutrality language came from Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst at the Consumers Union.
Consumers will end up paying twice for their Internet service because any new fees that content providers pay to network operators will be passed along, she said.
“This is the one provision of the bill that could most hurt consumers,” Kenney said.
“History shows us that telecom and media giants will use their network powers to discriminate. Theyre different networks, but its the same incentive to block access to consumers.”
The U.S. Telecom Association, which represents the phone companies, is not lobbying for the net neutrality provision either, because it is too early to legislate in this area, said Walter McCormick, president and CEO of USTA.