- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

On one side are Internet heavyweights including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and EBay Inc. On the other are their network providers, Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T; Corp. and Comcast Corp.

The issue is “network neutrality.” The Internet companies say neutrality should be protected by law, while the telephone and cable companies that build the networks say they should be able to charge the Internet giants more for using their pipes to offer competing video and other services.

The fight continued yesterday when the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee began its markup of the Communications, Consumers’ Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006. The bill does not contain network-neutrality provisions and endorses the Federal Communications Commission’s continuing efforts to ensure consumer freedoms online.

The FCC currently enforces neutrality disputes, but there is no formal law governing the issue.

But Sens. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, and Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, have proposed the Internet Freedom Preservation Act to “ensure that all content, applications and services are treated equally and fairly on the Internet by prohibiting broadband network operators from blocking, degrading or prioritizing service on their networks.” The senators said the FCC’s policy “neglected to adopt meaningful and enforceable safeguards.”

The Snowe-Dorgan bill has been endorsed by a variety of consumer groups, including the Christian Coalition and MoveOn.org, that normally do not see eye to eye.

The lack of a network-neutrality amendment would “radically transform the Internet as we know it,” by inhibiting economic and technological growth, Mrs. Snowe said yesterday. “Consumers should dictate their [Internet] choices and not two companies in any given market.”

Aides for both senators said they were optimistic about the amendment’s chances. It is expected to be voted on next week when the committee continues deliberations on more than 200 amendments to the act.

But Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, said the legislation’s current language was a “good compromise,” and he cautioned that stronger provisions will “kill this bill” because the House already has indicated its position.

The House earlier this month passed the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006, which allows telephone companies such as Verizon and AT&T; to offer television service nationally without receiving approval from local communities, but it does not include neutrality protections. The Senate bill includes similar expansion language.

A network-neutrality amendment sponsored by Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, in the House would have allowed Internet service providers to give certain traffic, such as bandwidth-heavy video services, priority as long as it did so uniformly and not at the expense of a competitor’s offering. The amendment was defeated 269-152.

The White House expressed support for the House bill via an Office of Management and Budget statement, which did not use the term network neutrality, but did say “the administration believes the FCC currently has sufficient authority to address potential abuses in the marketplace. Creating a new legislative framework for regulation in this area is premature.”

Last year, the FCC imposed fines on a local telephone carrier that was blocking Voice over Internet Protocol service from Vonage, a company that provides telephone service via the Internet.

The U.S. Telecom Association has repeatedly said its members would “not block, impair or degrade content, applications or services.”

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