Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate
Both the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce are now drafting legislation that would rewrite large sections of the 1996 Act.
The net neutrality issue centers on the common carriage responsibilities of broadband providers in an age when more and fatter IP services are being pushed down the broadband pipe to the consumer. (See LR Poll: Net 'Squatters' Should Pay.)
Some in Congress believe new laws are needed requiring broadband services providers (the telcos and the cable MSOs) to reserve equal bandwidth for competing services provided by the likes of Vonage and Google. (See Google Says No to QOS Fees.)
“Even as we welcome the deregulation of our telecommunications system, we must preserve some limited elements of openness and non-discrimination,” Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s “Chief Internet Evangelist,” Vinton Cerf, told the committee. “In this regard, Google supports tailored, minimally intrusive safeguards to promote net neutrality.” (See Google Goes to Wonkytown.)
Sitting side by side facing the committee members were Cerf, United States Telecom Association (USTelecom) CEO Walter McCormick, Vonage Holdings Corp. (NYSE: VG) CEO Jeffrey Citron, National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) CEO Kyle McSlarrow, and Incompas CEO Earl Comstock.
“We need to preserve net neutrality for the interests of the next Google waiting to be born in some dorm room or garage,” Cerf added. Vonage’s Citron looked pleased.
The RBOCs were represented by their trade group, the USTA, and their message was simple. “We will not block, impair, or degrade content, applications in any way,” said USTA’s McCormick. He would repeat the remark nearly verbatim several times during the hearing.
Both McCormick and the NCTA’s McSlarrow said their member companies have spent billions aggressively building out their networks, and will continue doing so as long as the financial incentive isn't stripped away by new regulation.
“The issue here is whether or not Congress will enact new legislation that will leave little or no incentive to invest in new networks,” McSlarrow said. “[If you do] you will force networks to compete only on size and price.”
Comptel’s Comstock scoffed at the assertion, remarking that the network operators write off more in depreciation on their networks every year than they invest in them. (See QOS Fees Could Change Everything .)
At several points during the hearing, the cable and telephone companies -- which together control 98 percent of the broadband access lines in the U.S. -- were accused of creating a scarcity of Internet bandwidth so that competing IP services like Vonage get only what's left over.
McCormick repeated that this has not happened, insisting that many of the network neutrality horror stories being proposed were really just hypothetical problems -- “what-ifs” -- that haven’t really happened yet. (See New Telecom Bill Draws Raves.)
Citron, though, pointed out that his company was blocked by the carrier Madison River Communications , and has since been blocked by several smaller carriers. He said Vonage was forced to organize “workarounds” to remedy the problems, and in some cases wasn't able to offer service.
McCormick told the panel the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) already has the authority under current law to prevent network operators from discriminating against certain services running over their networks. “The Commission has made it clear that it has both the authority and the appetite to move swiftly to intervene.”
McCormick was probably referring to the Madison River incident, the only documented network neutrality foul committed by a network operator thus far. When Madison River blocked Vonage traffic on its broadband network, it was summarily slapped down by the FCC for its actions. (See Vonage Victorious in Blocking Case.)
Had the Madison River incident occurred after the Brand X decision, the FCC wouldn't have had the authority to slap Madison River's hand. (See Brand X Decision Stokes VOIP Worries.)
The Supreme Court's Brand X decision last year declared that cable networks are not “telecommunication networks” but rather “information services,” and thus their owners aren’t subject to many common carriage responsibilities. The FCC soon after released an order extending the courtesy to telco networks.
Meanwhile, some members of Congress appeared a bit confused over the nuances of the debate. The committee chair, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) compared broadband pipes to oil pipelines in his home state of Alaska. [Ed. note: Sen. Stevens, it should be noted, compares everything to oil pipelines.] Stevens at one point told Google’s Vinton Cerf, “You certainly have a wonderful search engine there.”
But the Senator has been around and has seen these debates before. He fretted during the hearing that if the Congress erred on net neutrality legislation, it would be a very slow process to “put the genie back in the bottle.”
The network neutrality issue is just one of many aspects of the Telecom Act that lawmakers are considering changing. Others include VOIP e911, CALEA, and the Universal Service Fund.
— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading