- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

The House was set last night to vote on a telecommunications bill that would allow telephone companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T; Corp., to offer television service nationally without receiving approval from local communities. The bill is expected to give consumers more choices but not necessarily reduce costs.

Cable companies such as Comcast Corp., would operate under the same national franchising rules for voice and video services.

Congressional aides expect the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006 to pass as long as a “network neutrality” amendment is defeated.

A neutrality provision would prevent telecommunications companies from charging Internet behemoths such as Google Inc., EBay Inc. and Yahoo Inc. extra for using the high-speed networks. Dozens of consumer and public interest groups have joined the Internet companies in lobbying for net-neutrality legislation, which is vehemently opposed by the cable and telecommunications industries and free-market advocates.

The net-neutrality amendment from Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, would allow 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 telephone and cable companies that build and manage the networks say Internet companies, such as Google, that want to market and sell similar services on that backbone should help consumers foot the bill.

“Google wants to be carried and not pay rent,” former House Majority Leader Dick Armey told editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday.

FreedomWorks, the conservative advocacy group where Mr. Armey serves as chairman, opposes net-neutrality legislation and says the markets will determine proper pricing and service levels more effectively than government regulations.

The COPE Act’s author, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican, also opposes net-neutrality provisions, and Mr. Markey’s amendment was defeated in his committee.

“It’s a bad bill … that does nothing but take care of the special and the vested interests,” Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and ranking member of the House committee, said yesterday during debate on the House floor. He criticized the bill for not having any promise of lower prices for consumers, for taking local franchising rights away from communities and giving them to the Federal Communications Commission, and for not including net neutrality.

Israel Klein, a spokesman for Mr. Markey, would not speculate yesterday on the amendment’s chance of passing.

Lawmakers are split, mostly along party lines. Some say premature legislation could stifle the marketplace, while others have introduced and support net-neutrality bills.

“We will not block, impair or degrade content, applications or services,” Walter McCormick, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Telecom Association in Washington, has said repeatedly. But he added that telecommunications companies need incentives to continue to invest billions of dollars in their networks, and legislation is not needed because the FCC has shown it will act swiftly if problems arise.

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.

Mr. Armey said keeping net neutrality in the spotlight has allowed many lawmakers to continue to court the powerful lobbying groups on both sides without being on the record on either side.

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