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'Net Neutrality' in High Gear

The "Net neutrality" debate raged in Washington Tuesday, the subject of a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee and of countless letters to and from legislators on the issue as lobbyists geared up for a markup on a video franchising bill Wednesday.

A House Commerce Committee bill allowing national video franchises also promotes telco provision of Internet access. And there's the rub.

Because telcos want to be able to offer enhanced services over their networks, and charge content providers for those services, those who see one company's enhancement as another's degradation are concerned that those network providers will discriminate in Internet access provision., discouraging innovation and requiring Internet content providers to pay "protection" money not to have their service degraded.

On the telco side, Walter McCormick, promised legislators that the companies he represents would not "block, impair, or degrade" access. He also told the committee that antitrust laws, as they already exist, guard against restraint of trade and should be able to insure that so-called "network neutrality."

McCormick said that since the bill already charges the FCC with adjudicating violations of what it decided impedes network neutrality, combining that with antitrust law is a "belt-and-suspenders" approach that covers the net neutrality issue without tougher rules or giving the FCC the ability to set rules on the issue rather than simply punish violators of general anti-network neutrality principles.

McCormick says that companies like Disney have approached them about setting up virtual private networks--where they could securely distribute video content, for example--and that those companies should bear the cost of that enhanced services.

Proponents of stronger network neutrality rules counter that that scenario means that others service will be, de facto, degraded, since the bigger pipe will go to the company willing or able to pay for it.

The most doomsday scenario among the net neutrality crowd came from Paul Misener, Paul Misener, Global Public Policy VP, He predicted that while network operators will promise not to degrade access to some in order to give fast-lane access to others, eventually they would provide this ultimatum: "Pay us for prioritization or we will degrade." Smaller companies will have no chance in that bidding war and innovation will be stifled.

There may be a flurry of antitrust actions, and the Congress and the FCC will realize their mistake in not mandating network neutrality, he said, but it will be too late.

The result, he said, of this "clear and present danger," will have been to "reduce content choice, stall innovation, and wound global Internet competitiveness."

The danger of the bill passing may not be as clear and present as it once was. Judiciary committee members were talking about starting a process--of looking at the issue--on a bill that other legislators were hoping to approve by Wednesday night.

As one lobbyist pointed out, the net neutrality lobby has succeeded in pushing that issue to the front burner, overshadowing the the bill's core, which is national video franchise reform.

While Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) has vowed the telecom reform bill would pass this session, the more contentious it becomes, and the net neutrality lobbying letters and e-mails are multiplying like virtual rabbits, the less likely a bill can be agreed-on, voted out, reconciled with a much more comprehensive Senate version not yet marked-up, passed, and signed in the dwindling days of the legislative calendar.