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Oops: AT&T/BellSouth Forgets Net Neutrality

AT&T-BellSouth has filed a new version of its proposed merger conditions with the FCC.

The conditions were made public late Friday (Oct. 13) after commission Democrats asked them to be put out for public comment, effectively blocking a vote on the merger at least until that is done. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin agreed on a 10-day comment period and has rescheduled a vote for Nov. 3.

In its revised filing, AT&T/BellSouth pointed to a typo in the original and to a key omission: a "potential merger condition on network neutrality," one of the hot-button issues in Washington and one which the Democratic members favor.

In a letter to the FCC, AT&T/BellSouth attorneys said the network neutrality condition was inadvertently omitted from the original letter, which was essentially putting on paper conversations between the companies and FCC staffers. It has been seeking FCC approval of the $67 billion merger of the two companies. The Justice Department last week said it had no antitrust issues that rose to the level of a consent decree, essentially its method of securing conditions on the merger.

That omitted condition would be that, for 30 months from the closing of the deal, "AT&T/BellSouth will conduct business in a manner that comports with the principles set forth in the FCC's policy Statement of Sept. 23, 2005."

In September 2005, the FCC outlined a new framework for broadband Internet access in the wake of its two decisions that summer that cable and telephone companies do not have to make their networks available to unaffiliated Internet Service Providers. At the same time, it spelled out antidiscrimination principles it expected them to follow, or else.

Just how strong that "or else" is has become one of the $64,000 questions in Washington surrounding network neutrality--the other being how to define it. Network neutrality backers want thoe principles spelled out in rules with tough enforcement behind them. Networks say the rules would not allow them to manage their networks freely or make money to invest in further network build-outs.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin says he already has the power to enforce violators of those basic access principles, which encourage nondiscrimination in the provision of Internet service.