Net neutrality debate lingers in senate

By Wayne Rash,

A controversial telecommunications bill that has raised the issue of whether high-speed Internet providers should be able to charge premium rates has made its way out of a Senate committee, but its future in the full body is less than certain.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on June 28 approved the much-amended telecom reform bill in a 15-7 bipartisan vote. The approval came after the group spiked an amendment that would have inserted language that would have resulted in federal regulation of the Internet. The newly renamed Advanced Telecommunications and Opportunity Reform Act now will go to the full Senate for a vote.

How the legislation will fare there—and what it'll ultimately mean to technology managers—is unclear. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., already has placed a "hold" on the bill because it lacks a provision banning carriers from discriminating on the basis of service or access—an issue called "network neutrality."

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who chairs the committee, has said he doesn't have the 60 votes needed to break Wyden's hold on the bill. However, he included a number of provisions sought by Democratic members of his committee, and some observers think that may help him round up the votes he needs.

PointerIs Sen. Stevens really the best spokesperson for net neutrality? Click here to read more.

"We're optimistic that this bill can pass," said BellSouth General Counsel-DC Bennett Ross in an interview here. "There are a lot of pro-consumer benefits."

Ross noted that narrowing the scope of the existing Senate bill to match the House version passed earlier this year may make it easier to get the necessary votes. He said Stevens is considering such an action.

"It's very possible that we're going to lose some good consumer legislation over the issue of net neutrality," said Dave McClure, president and CEO of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, based here. In the past, net neutrality regulations introduced as stand-alone legislation have failed, McClure said, and he sees little hope of that changing.

"If they weren't trying to hold up the franchise reform legislation with a filibuster, it wouldn't go anywhere," McClure said. "That's why they tacked it on."

If net neutrality language is tacked onto the bill, some observers expect the full Senate to reject the legislation. "The Senate isn't likely to trade the broad consumer benefits of Stevens-Inouye for extreme Internet regulations," Verizon spokesperson David Fish said in a prepared statement.

Some question whether such regulation is even needed.

"I don't think we have a problem yet," said David Farber, distinguished career professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. Farber, one of the creators of the Internet, said that, if issues feared by net neutrality advocates do arise, there are already laws to deal with them. "Antitrust law works fairly well and can be used effectively if someone gets out of line, and the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] has the ability to act if something egregious happens," he said.

There is no timetable for Senate action on the bill, but getting it through this year will be tight, with the Senate in recess much of the fall for the upcoming elections.

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