Sorry, AT&T, Net Neutrality Debate Is Still On

James Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, recently told my colleague Grant Gross that the network neutrality bills currently perking in Congress in the aftermath of Barack Obama's election are unnecessary.

"There's a lot of people who now believe that companies like AT&T are not plotting to overthrow the open Internet concept," Cicconi said.

Like who, Jim? Verizon? Comcast? Time Warner?

This is the tune broadband providers have been whistling since the Federal Communications Commission ordered Comcast to stop throttling BitTorrent traffic. That decision, broadband providers claim, solves the issue of network neutrality with the FCC making case-by-case decisions.

There's a small problem, though, with that theory. Comcast did not receive a fine nor did the decision lay out proscriptions to other broadband providers that dabble in throttling and bandwidth caps in the name of network management. Then there's the fact that Comcast is appealing the decision on the basis that the FCC has no real authority to enforce its network neutrality rulers.

If Comcast wins its appeal -- and many people think it will -- the whole network neutrality issue is back to zero, which would please the AT&Ts of the world.

U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, who introduced network neutrality legislation in the 110th Congress that went exactly nowhere, plans to bring a new net neutrality bill to the 111th Congress, which begins in January.

One of Obama's earliest tech-related campaign promises was to throw his support behind network neutrality, which would prohibit discrimination in the delivery of broadband services by providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

Without network neutrality rules, Obama said, "you could get much better quality from the Fox News site and you'd be getting rotten service from some mom and pop site. And that, I think, destroys one of the best things about the Internet -- which is that there is this incredible equality there."

Yet even Obama may not back Dorgan's bill, at least until the Comcast appeal is finally decided. His first choice is to leave the issue with the FCC.

All that adds up to broadband providers continuing to push the legal envelope about how they handle user traffic for probably at least a year so before the Comcast case works itself out. Then there would be months of debate in Congress and the FCC following the decision.

Chances of new network neutrality laws in 2009? Almost zero.