• United States

Internet: The end of the beginning . . .

May 08, 20063 mins

With all the hype surrounding it, you would be forgiven if you thought the April 26 vote in the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce both killed and saved the Internet. I expect its effect will be more on the killed than saved side, but there is a long road to travel before the final outcome is known.

The House Committee was discussing amendments to the Communications, Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006 (draft version of the act and a list of the amendments being considered). This proposed act would update the venerable Communications Act of 1934 (which was passed before the apparently irresistible urge to come up with cute acronyms for laws came into play). This draft is the latest version of the bill I wrote about last year (see A telecom-regulation pipe dream).

The draft is mostly (35 of 50 pages) about letting national cable franchises – Verizon, for example – apply at the federal level to offer cable TV services anyplace in the country without having to kiss the whatever of local TV franchise committees. The next major topic covered (nine pages) is a requirement for connected VoIP providers to support E911.

The remainder of the bill consists of three short sections. One (one and a half pages) would stop states’ blocking municipalities from offering telecom services (including broadband Internet access), as long as municipalities do not get a better deal than normal commercial providers do. Another (one page) would stop broadband service providers’ requiring you to buy services you do not want in order to get something you do want. The remaining section (three pages) would give the FCC’s statement of principles about broadband services the force of law.

The last topic is what all the fuss was about. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) offered alternative language that would require broadband Internet access providers to create a level playing field for Internet services. This is the same topic, but not the same part of Congress, I wrote about a while back (see Father knows best about ‘Net neutrality).

At first glance the FCC’s four principles look reasonable, and the draft’s establishment of a half-million dollar fine for violating them looks like the FCC might have teeth. Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Joe Barton (R-Texas) says he thinks this is all that is needed. But the FCC’s principles cite only customers’ ability to “access the lawful Internet content of their choice,” to “run applications and use services of their choice,” and to “connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.” The principles do not refer to providing a useful level of quality to those services of which the providers have not had money extorted by the carrier.

The telecom industry says it will not take advantage of this omission (which the Markey amendment would have fixed), and I’m not one to mistrust the telecom industry (sure!).

Barton and the majority of the committee sided with the telecom industry, which said requiring it to provide a fair playing field was unfair, and broadband services would not be deployed if the industry had to be fair.

This could be the end of the dynamic Internet and the beginning of the innovate-when-Verizon-gets-around-to-it Internet. The rest of Congress has not yet spoken, however. There is a chance the Senate will do the right thing; let’s hope that this is not the last word.

Disclaimer: There is no such thing as a last word in most of Harvard, but the university has expressed no official opinion on this topic, so the above is my own rant.