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Stearns: A la Carte, Network Neutrality Quiet

The ranking Republican on the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee said he doesn’t think there will be any congressional action on a la carte or network neutrality in this session of Congress and advised that unless it wanted to kill innovation and upset a vibrant marketplace, the Federal Communications Commission shouldn't do anything, either.

That was music to the ears of cable operators gathered in Washington, D.C., Wednesday for a National Cable & Telecommunications Association-sponsored day to meet and greet legislators and the FCC.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) -- who got a standing ovation from a roomful of about 300 operators attending a breakfast session at a hotel just steps from FCC headquarters -- said he thought House Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) would focus more on energy policy as head of a new select subcommittee.

Asked what he thought the subcommittee would do about the network-management issue in the next 18 months, Stearns said, "Nothing is going to happen this year, probably, on network neutrality." But he added that long-term, "some of the large players want to be able to have access. They are going to question whether they are being denied because of you managing the network and they are going to ask the government to step in and allow it."

Stearns said the issue may become moot if a new Internet "grid" he has been reading about on Google develops -- one he said was 10,000 times faster and could download movies in seconds.

He did warn that if the Democrats pick up too many more members, "they would probably pass Markey's network-neutrality bill,” which Stearns opposes.

Stearns also suggested that one reason why the committee might not be doing as much is that Markey has been made chairman of the Climate Control Select Committee. "His emphasis has been there, and not as much as I see in the telecommunications area, which is probably, from your standpoint, good."

Even so, he did predict more hearings, if no legislation, on network neutrality. "A la carte is on the side," he said. "I don't see anything happening there. I don't see too much other than perhaps dealing with the war, energy and climate control."

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow praised Stearns for being in cable's corner on a la carte, leased access and network neutrality. "He has been a great advocate for free markets," he said.

Stearns did not disappoint. He cited the "explosion of competition" since the deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996 and cable's $130 billion investment in upgrades over the last dozen years, which he said was prompted by that deregulation. "We need to continue on that course," he added, calling the proposed regulation of the Internet "the biggest threat … to our digital future."

That threat, he said, is embodied in Markey's network-neutrality bill because it imposes new regulations without defining network discrimination, which nobody can agree on, "and does not even require an examination of the status of competition before imposing these new regulations."

Stearns said an approach that treats the networks that make up the Internet "no differently than perhaps the railroads or the monopoly telephones of long ago is just not today's reality. Common-carrier principles such as nondiscrimination might have made some sense dealing with the railroads or telephones, but today, we should not rely on 19th Century or even 20th Century models.”

He added that the bill would be one sure way to kill investment, growth and innovation. Stearns praised Comcast for working with BitTorrent and others to find a marketplace solution to network management and praised the recent meeting of the minds of cable and consumer-electronics companies over the tru2Way plug-and-play digital-TV technology platform. "That shows the market works and you are to be congratulated," he said.

Stearns said enforced a la carte, either retail or wholesale, would raise rates and "kill" the availability of niche programming.

"A vibrant video marketplace is developing,” he added. “The last thing we need to do is to have the government impose unnecessary regulation that would harm consumers. The marketplace, not Congress or the FCC, should dictate programming and market decisions."