Net Neutrality Faces House Vote

A small portion of the emergency $825 billion stimulus package scheduled for a Jan. 28 U.S. House vote could hold big consequences for network neutrality advocates. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's $6 billion in grants and loans to build out wireless networks comes attached with network neutrality and open access strings. Telecom and cable giants like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are likely to try to eventually undo the network neutrality and open access mandates.

The U.S. House is scheduled to vote Jan. 28 on an $825 billion stimulus package attaching network neutrality and open access strings for $6 billion in grants and loans to build out broadband networks in unserved and underserved areas of the country. If-as widely expected-the American Recovery and Reinvestment passes the House, it will represent the first successful congressional action on network neutrality.
The House legislation requires the winners of the funding to allow any legal device to be connected to the new networks, and network operators are prohibited from discriminating in the handling of network traffic. The mandates do not apply to existing networks.
While the Senate is still in the process of drafting its recovery package, the Senate approved Jan. 27 an Appropriations Committee package that requires "non-discrimination and network interconnection obligations" for the $9 billion allocated for new broadband networks.
"For those of us who waited for a new day to advance the cause of preserving a free, open and non-discriminatory Internet, the language in the House stimulus package is a great first step toward reclaiming the Internet and establishing once and for all the concept that carriers can't discriminate," Art Brodsky, communications director of Public Knowledge, wrote on the PK blog Jan. 27.
Brodsky, a veteran of Washington's telecom policy debates, warns, though, that it is still a long road to seeing network neutrality and open access become part of law, even if it's applied only to networks built under the bill.
"The most dangerous part of this game has yet to occur. The House will pass its bill. The Senate will pass its bill. How the two will reconcile their differences is not yet known," Brodsky wrote. "A traditional conference committee is unlikely given the time constraints. The telephone companies and Chamber of Commerce have started complaining about the conditions, even though they haven't mounted a public challenge."
Public or not, telephone and cable giants like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are adamantly opposed to congressionally imposed network neutrality and open access requirements, objecting to the idea of government control over their network management practices. Under Republican control and the Bush administration, telecoms and cable companies successfully blocked any congressional action on the issues.
"The best opportunity to strip out the progressive elements of the telecom provisions will be in the reconciliation process, much of which will take place behind closed doors," Brodsky noted. "At this point, it's not certain who will be at the table, particularly if there isn't a formal conference committee. It will be up to the champions of open networks to make sure those provisions stay in."
In the House, a network neutrality amendment to a telco reform bill failed in 2006. The Senate has never had a floor vote on network neutrality, but the Senate Commerce Committee voted against a network neutrality amendment to the 2006 telco reform bill.
Since then, the network neutrality debate has centered around the Federal Communications Commission's legal status and ability to enforce the agency's Internet principles. In August 2005, the FCC declared that consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice, run applications and services of their choice, and 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.
The FCC declared Aug. 1 that Comcast was violating the agency's Internet policy when it blocked peer-to-peer traffic by BitTorrent. The agency also found that Comcast misled consumers when it did not properly disclose its P2P policy. While Comcast was not fined for the network neutrality violation, the FCC ordered Comcast to cease the practice and to keep the public informed of its future network management plans. Comcast complied with the order but also went to court to challenge the FCC's authority to enforce the principles.