Net Neutrality Takes Center Stage in Broadband Stimulus Package

House Democrats are signaling support for network neutrality as the Energy and Commerce Committee attaches network neutrality and open access mandates to almost $3 billion in grants and loans for network build-outs to unserved and underserved areas of the country.

Democrats sent a strong signal Jan. 22 that network neutrality would play a starring role in the $6 billion broadband piece of the U.S. House's overall $825 billion economic stimulus package. Inapproving $2.9 billion for network build-outs in rural and underserved areas, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce insisted that network neutrality and open network mandates be attached to the funding.
"These are public dollars. Networks built with this funding should be open," Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said. The mandates require 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.
In a business meeting that extended late into the night, the House panel approved a grants program to be operated by the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) that calls for 25 percent of the $2.9 billion to be spent on areas of the country with no broadband access with the remaining 75 percent poured into "underserved" areas.
The other half of the $6 billion dedicated to broadband build-out in the House stimulus package calls for $2.9 billion in grants and loans to administered by the Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program is not under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, but it is expected that the same network neutrality and open network mandates will be attached to the funding.
The overall stimulus bill may reach the floor of the House the week of Jan. 26. The Senate's version is currently being drafted.
The mandates represent a major shift in the policy battle over network neutrality. Under Republican control and the Bush administration, efforts to pass network neutrality laws faced opposition from telecommunications and cable companies, which adamantly objected to the idea of government control over their network management practices.
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 FCC'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.
The FCC is now investigating concerns that Comcast's new network management practices degrade the sound quality of VOIP (voice over IP) services such as Vonage and Skype that compete with Comcast's own VOIP service.
The Jan. 22 Committee on Energy and Commerce vote to introduce network neutrality into the legislative mix cheered public advocacy groups.
"We are very pleased that the House Appropriations Committee ... and the House Energy and Commerce Committee ... recognized the need for an open and nondiscriminatory Internet," Public Knowledge's Gigi Sohn said in a statement. "Both committees approved draft economic stimulus legislation leaving intact provisions that recipients of stimulus grant funds be required to follow build-out requirements, Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality guidelines and open-access requirements."