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CES - FCC Chairman talks around net neutrality

By Elizabeth Montalbano, IDG News Service
January 11, 2007 01:45 PM ET

IDG News Service - U.S. Federal Communications Commission Kevin Martin Wednesday waffled on the hotly debated issue of net neutrality, saying it "means different things to different people" during his talk at CES in Las Vegas.

In an on-stage interview with Consumer Electronics Association President and CEO Gary Shapiro at the annual conference, Martin said he agreed that consumers should continue to have access to "everything that's available for free on the Internet" without having that access blocked from network operators and service providers.

However, he also agreed with the idea that operators should be able to charge consumers for premium bandwidth and services provided over pipes the operators own, and that this activity does not mean they are "blocking" consumers' access to the Web.

"I think it's important to realize the operators themselves have an interest in potentially selling tiers of speed and service," Martin said. "If a consumer chooses to buy a lower tier and then tries to access content ... and they can't access [it] because they haven't bought enough capacity, well they're not being blocked from getting access to that."

Stand-alone net neutrality legislation failed to pass in Congress last year, with many of the then-majority Republicans opposed to it. Since then, the Democratic party, which is more friendly to net neutrality, has taken control of Congress.

Two senators -- a Democrat and a Republican -- re-introduced to a recently convened Congress a bill that would prohibit broadband providers from giving customers faster and more stable access to their own content than to competitors' content.

Speaking Wednesday, Martin also said he is in favor of requiring cable operators such as Comcast Cable Communications LLC to offer "à la carte" services instead of forcing consumers to purchase expensive monthly subscriptions for a host of channels they don't want in order to get access to premium content. However, he stopped short of saying the FCC would actually support regulation in this area.

"It’s not that we have a particular rule, but it would be positive for consumers," Martin said.

He also came out in favor of saving consumers from another point of contention -- early-termination fees imposed by wireless service providers when users want to cancel a contract that has yet to expire in favor of choosing a competitors' service.

Martin did not say whether the FCC would oppose or support legislation in this area. However, since there currently are legal disputes in various state courts about early-termination fees, he said the commission would consider supporting the rights of individual states to create laws in this area.

"It's time for us to clarify whether that's something that can be done within the state's jurisdiction," Martin said.

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