Group Adds Alternative to Net 'Tiers'

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WASHINGTON -- A new Washington, D.C., think tank has offered a "third way" for the U.S. Congress to deal with a controversial debate on whether laws should prohibit broadband providers from discriminating against Internet services from competitors.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) plan, released this week, would allow broadband providers to offer exclusive, high-speed services to customers of their choosing, but it would also guarantee a level of broadband service that all Web companies and customers could access without paying new fees.

The ITIF proposal attempts to bring a "nonpartisan, objective and pragmatic" view to the so-called net neutrality debate, said plan co-author Rob Atkinson, president of ITIF. "There's been a lot of name-calling and really an unproductive kind of debate," he said.

Greeted With Skepticism

But a spokesperson for Public Knowledge, an online rights advocacy group pushing for a net neutrality law, said the ITIF plan mirrors what broadband providers are currently proposing. Public Knowledge and other net neutrality advocates have opposed a two-tier Internet, and the ITIF plan allows broadband carriers to put customers and competitors in a slow lane, said Art Brodsky.

The ITIF proposal doesn't address a problem of too few broadband providers available to most U.S. residents and a temptation of broadband providers to discriminate against competitors, he added. "The whole point of this thing is we only have two providers," Brodsky said. "On the whole, I don't really think this is a third way."

A spokesperson for AT&T, which has opposed a law prohibiting carriers from blocking or impairing competing Web content, said the company hasn't had a chance to review the ITIF proposal. "It likely is more reasoned and honest than the mindless pursuit of legislation by the online giants," said AT&T spokesperson Michael Balmoris. "Their ill-reasoned effort would make consumers pay more for broadband."

Both sides in the current net neutrality debate in Congress ignore important points, Atkinson said. Those calling for a net neutrality law--including online services companies Yahoo and Google--fail to recognize that broadband providers need new business plans to build out next-generation networks, he said. Net neutrality laws could also limit providers' ability to manage their networks, he added.

"There are some potential advantages to network management, and we shouldn't just write that off with a hard and fast rule," Atkinson said.

On the other hand, providers arguing against a net neutrality law won't recognize a lack of competition that may not end soon, Atkinson added. "The other side doesn't want to admit there's potential for real market abuse," he said.

Redefining Broadband

The proposal would empower the Federal Communications Commission to define what speeds constitute broadband. The FCC could start by defining broadband as 2 megabits per second-- faster than typical DSL speeds right now--and then raise the minimum speed to encourage faster broadband services, Atkinson recommended.

Carriers that provide true broadband would get multiple tax breaks, including a long-term exemption from having to charge customers Internet access taxes, Atkinson said.

Carriers that failed to meet the FCC broadband speed requirements would lose the tax breaks and could not call their services "broadband." But on top of this broadband service open to everyone, broadband providers could charge extra for faster service, and they could chose which Internet companies had access to that faster service, according to the proposal.

"The analogy is, yes, they can build a toll road," Atkinson said "But they also have to have a pretty good and growing free road."

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