Telecoms unsure what to expect from next administration on Net Neutrality

by Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service

The major U.S. telecommunications carriers aren't sure what to expect from the next presidential administration, but at least one is hoping for a resolution of the Comcast net neutrality issue before President George Bush leaves office.

Network neutrality will be a key issue facing either Republican Senator John McCain or Democratic Senator Barack Obama if either of those presumptive party nominees wins the November election, carrier executives said during a panel discussion at the NXTcomm conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Others include potential acquisitions and the prices incumbent carriers can charge competitors for access to their lines.

The president appoints the five-member U.S. Federal Communications Commission, though only three members can be from the same political party. Under Bush, the commission has been weighted against government regulation in general, though it has cracked down in media decency and some other areas. The carrier officials didn't lay out many clear predictions about a shift from Republican to Democratic control, nor about a change from Bush to McCain.

The heated issue of net neutrality boiled over earlier this year when cable operator Comcast was accused of throttling traffic that uses the BitTorrent P-to-P (peer-to-peer) file-sharing protocol. It acknowledged doing so, invoking its right to manage its own network as justification. The dispute led to renewed calls for legislation guaranteeing consumers can use broadband networks for any legal purpose without discrimination. Comcast said earlier this month it would stop targeting specific network protocols for throttling but instead would slow traffic during peak hours for customers who used a "disproportionate" amount of capacity. The FCC is investigating Comcast but has not taken formal action against it.
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"I think it's in the interest of the industry for the FCC to make a judgment on the Comcast issue" in 2008, said Thomas Tauke, executive vice president of public affairs, policy and communications at Verizon Communications. The impact of a change in the White House isn't clear, he said.

"There's no question that Senator Obama is committed to the notion of net neutrality. To the best of my knowledge, he has not yet really defined what that means or how he would intend to implement that policy," Tauke said.

A position statement on the Obama campaign Web site says the candidate is opposed to a "two-tier" Internet in which some content providers pay for preferential treatment on networks.

"Barack Obama supports the basic principle that network providers should not be allowed to charge fees to privilege the content or applications of some Web sites and Internet applications over others," and will "protect the Internet's traditional openness," the statement says, without describing how he would do this. There is no clearly marked statement about net neutrality on McCain's site.

The carriers advocated case-by-case enforcement of the FCC's neutrality principles, adopted in 2005.

"Our big concern has been having legislation or rules adopted which would anticipate what problems might occur three, five, seven years down the road ... when we don't even know how the industry will evolve," said James Cicconi, senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs at AT&T.
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But he called the Comcast-BitTorrent case a blessing in disguise.

"The BitTorrent case has really brought this debate down to some specifics which people can really get their arms around," Cicconi said. "I do think there is some movement here. We don't get push-back as much anymore when we talk about reasonable network management." There are even things that critics of the carriers want them to be able to do in the networks, he said.

An executive of Sprint Nextel, who railed against "forbearance" petitions that the FCC has granted to waive price controls on incumbent carriers' lines, said the next president will have to face the consequences of FCC policies under Bush.

"What you've seen is just a landslide of petition after petition" granted, said Anna Gomez, vice president of government affairs for telecom at Sprint.

The outcome of the November election might play a decisive role if there are more large service-provider mergers, said Matthew Cantor, an attorney at Constantine Cannon, who also spoke on the panel. In particular, a carrier's attempt to buy a satellite TV broadcaster would raise tough competition issues, he said.

"Under a Bush administration, I think clearly the deal's going to go through. I think under an Obama administration, it might be a harder sell," Cantor said.

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