Plan Treats All Broadband Providers Alike

WASHINGTON -- The House Energy and Commerce Committee has released a draft of a telecommunications reform bill that brings all broadband services under the same regulatory umbrella.

The 77-page draft legislation, released Thursday to provoke discussion from broadband providers and others, would also require broadband providers to give subscribers access to any lawful content. Some broadband providers contend a so-called net neutrality requirement isn't needed.

Representatives of Verizon and SBC have said a net neutrality rule could prevent them from cutting off service to bandwidth hogs or customers posing a security risk.

Bipartisan Support

The wide-ranging draft bill--advanced by Committee Chairman Joe Barton, top-ranking committee Democrat John Dingell of Michigan, and other senior committee members--addresses a number of broadband-related issues debated in recent months. The draft is "generally deregulatory in thrust, and that is commendable," Randy May, a senior fellow at conservative thinktank the Progress and Freedom Foundation, wrote on in an evaluation in 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, a Texas Republican, said in a statement.

"No one could have foreseen the magnitude of the challenges and opportunities that the Internet age has presented," Barton said. "New services shouldn't be hamstrung by old thinking and outdated regulations.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 enable a streamlined video franchising process, which would primarily benefit large telecommunications carriers that want to provide video over IP services in competition with cable television.

Consumer Group Approves

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 carriers such as Verizon and SBC. Both offer DSL, and until an August ruling by the Federal Communications Commission, 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 having to seek 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 new broadband video providers would not have to seek 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."

VOIP, Video Providers Affected

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 Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) providers to offer 911 emergency calling service to customers, as the FCC has required. It would let the FCC 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 part 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 let broadband providers 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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