House committee floats broadband bill

The U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday released a draft version of a telecommunications reform bill that would define all broadband services as equal for regulatory purposes.

The 77-page draft legislation, released to generate discussion from broadband providers and other stakeholders, would also require broadband providers to allow subscribers access to lawful content, even though some broadband providers have suggested a so-called 'Net neutrality requirement isn't needed.

Representatives of Verizon and SBC in the past have said a 'Net neutrality requirement could prevent them from cutting off service to bandwidth hogs or customers posing a security risk.

The wide-ranging draft bill -- advanced by Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), top-ranking committee Democrat John Dingell (D-Mich.) and other senior committee members -- addresses a number of broadband-related issues that have generated debate in recent months. The draft is "generally deregulatory in thrust, and that is commendable," Randy May, a senior fellow at conservative think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation, wrote on his Web log Thursday.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, a huge rewrite of telecom rules at the time, didn't anticipate many of the broadband services addressed in the draft bill, Barton said in a statement. "No one could have foreseen the magnitude of the challenges and opportunities that the Internet age has presented," he added. "New services shouldn't be hamstrung by old thinking and outdated regulations. We need a fresh new approach that will encourage Internet providers to expand and improve broadband networks, spur growth in the technology sector and develop cutting-edge services for consumers."

In addition to treating cable modem and DSL service the same under U.S. regulations, the bill would allow for a streamlined video franchising process, primarily benefiting large telecommunications carriers looking to provide video over IP services in competition with cable television.

Customer advocacy group Public Knowledge cheered the draft legislation, including the broadband video and 'Net neutrality provisions. "We were very pleased to see that Chairman Barton recognized the need for preserving the model of an open broadband network by codifying the duty of broadband providers to allow subscribers to have access to the services, equipment and applications they need without interference from network providers," Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, said in a statement.

Winners in the legislation, if it's introduced and passed, could be large telecommunications incumbent carriers such as Verizon and SBC. Verizon and SBC offer DSL, and until an August ruling by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), they were required to share their DSL lines at a discounted price with competitors. The draft legislation would write the FCC's decision into law and treat DSL providers like cable providers, which are not required to open their cable modem service to competitors.

Verizon, SBC and other telecom providers would also be exempt from seeking local franchise approvals when offering video services. The streamlined franchise process under the draft bill would still allow local governments to charge franchising fees, but the bill would exempt new broadband video providers from seeking hundreds of local franchise agreements. Cable operators have argued that new broadband video providers should face the same local franchise regulations that they did when they began to offer service.

SBC, in a statement, said it was pleased the committee "is moving to bring consumers meaningful video choice."

The draft would require broadband video providers to comply with most regulations now faced by cable operators, including equal access for political candidates, ownership limits and requirements that they must carry some television channels.

The draft would also force VoIP providers to offer 911 emergency calling service to customers, as the FCC has required, and it would allow the FCC to decide whether VoIP providers should contribute to the federal Universal Service Fund, which funds telecom and broadband services in schools, libraries and rural areas.

The portion of the bill requiring broadband providers to allow customers to access the legal content and use the legal services of their choice puts limits on the 'Net neutrality rules. VoIP provider Vonage and some other technology companies have pushed for a 'Net neutrality rule, with Vonage saying a handful of broadband providers have already tried to block its service.

The draft bill would allow broadband providers to impose reasonable bandwidth limitations and take reasonable measures to protect the security and reliability of the network. Broadband providers can also offer their own value-added services, such as parental controls or spam filters. Executives from SBC and Verizon have argued that a 'Net neutrality law isn't needed because providers that cut off services will lose customers.

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