Fight brewing in Congress over net neutrality

Lawmakers and companies debate about control broadband providers will have over content traveling on their pipes

Someday soon, your broadband provider may allow you to get faster results on one search engine, while your favorite search site is slower.

A handful of large broadband providers control the pipes into most U.S. residents' homes, and they now want to control the content flowing over those pipes, consumer advocates complain. And how much control large broadband providers such as AT&T Inc., BellSouth Corp. and Comcast Corp. have over the Web sites and applications customers use on their broadband networks is at the heart of a debate heating up in the U.S. Congress this year.

A concept called net neutrality -- that Internet users should have the right to go to any legal Web site, run any legal Web application and attach any legal device to the network -- has been around for years. Former U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell called for four Internet freedoms enveloping net neutrality in February 2004.

But only in last half year have backers of net neutrality -- including Yahoo Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. -- pushed to have those ideas written into law. Since late last year, Congress has looked at ways to update its 10-year-old telecommunications regulations to address broadband and related services such as VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol).

Some Republicans in Congress have expressed doubts about a net neutrality law, saying it would be the first step toward regulating the wide, open Internet. Such a law could also discourage broadband providers from improving their networks, said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.

"I'm ¿ very concerned that we not put a chill on the investment that's required for the rollout of broadband services," he said at a recent net neutrality forum.

As part of telecom reform, AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. are pushing a stripped-down video franchising process that would allow them to quickly expand their broadband video services in competition with cable television providers. AT&T and BellSouth have proposed a high-speed broadband video network separate from the public Internet, guaranteeing its own video service a level of quality that's not available on the regular Internet.

Net neutrality backers object, saying broadband providers want to move away from the open Internet and create an Internet fast lane for their own services, or for affiliated services, and a slow lane for everyone else. VOIP provider Vonage Holdings Corp. already points to a handful of cases where broadband providers have tried to block or slow its service.

Small, innovative companies won't be able to compete in a pay-for-performance Internet, said Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America.

The model of the Internet, until now, has been for providers to charge for access and for innovative companies to provide products people want to use on the Internet, Cooper said at a recent net neutrality forum. "You haven't innovated anything that you want to charge these customers for," Cooper told Verizon and BellSouth executives.

Cooper and some net neutrality advocates say tiered service is acceptable -- broadband providers should be able to charge more for 10 gigabit service than 1 gigabit service. But if customers pay for 10 gigabit service, they should be able to run whatever Web applications and services they want, he argued.

But some broadband providers say they should have the right to forge new business relationships with Web businesses, including the power to charge Web sites extra for better performance. In their vision of the future Internet, one search engine or news site would pay a broadband provider more so that Web surfers had faster access than to competing sites.

Providers won't have the money to built next-generation broadband networks through the money they receive from subscribers alone, said Bennett Ross general counsel for BellSouth. While net neutrality backers want faster broadband, many of BellSouth's customers don't want to pay $24 a month for a stripped-down DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) offering, he said at a net neutrality forum this month.

"Who's going to pay for it?" Ross said. "We cannot expect to recover the entire cost of the next-generation broadband network solely ¿ from broadband access charges. We have to look at other revenue streams."

Part of the reason the idea of net neutrality is generating a huge debate now is because of recent FCC and U.S. Supreme Court action. The Supreme Court in June upheld an FCC ruling allowing cable modem service providers to close off their networks to competing ISPs (Internet service providers). Then in August, the FCC also exempted DSL providers from the so-called common carrier rules that required telecom carriers to allow voice and data traffic from any company that wanted to get on their networks.

As a result, both cable modem and DSL providers can shut out competing ISPs, potentially limiting most U.S. residents to one or two broadband providers. Broadband providers say more competition is coming in multiple forms, including wireless services and broadband over power lines. Competition will keep broadband providers from discriminating against some Web content, argue executives from the large providers.

Net neutrality advocates focus on the situation now, with most U.S. residents having two or fewer choices for broadband providers. "This doesn't constitute a competitive environment," said Vinton Cerf, co-designer of the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/IP) and a vice president at Google.

Cerf and other net neutrality advocates point to recent statements by officials from broadband providers AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon, complaining that companies like Google are getting a free ride on their pipes.

AT&T Chief Executive Officer Ed Whitacre talked in November to Business Week about Google and Vonage. "Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it," Whitacre said then.

Google and Vonage argue they pay for their own bandwidth, and their customers pay broadband providers as well.

Instead of worrying about how customers use bandwidth, broadband providers should focus on bringing faster service to U.S. customers, argued Douglas Van Houweling, president and chief executive officer of Internet2, a consortium providing high-speed access to U.S. universities. Internet2, launched in 1996, experimented in its early days with ways to segment traffic, but found that creating a tiered network was too "complicated and expensive," he said.

"A well-designed, high-bandwidth network does not need quality of service [limits] on advanced services," Van Houweling said. "We think the best way for providers to make money is explosive growth of the Internet."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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