Wyden Bill Seeks to Neutralize

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said Thursday he will introduce a new, single-purpose "net neutrality" bill in the Senate. (See Net Neutrality Debate Wydens.)

Wyden’s bill would regulate the quality of service (QOS) fees and tiered service agreements that last-mile broadband operators strike with Internet content companies. Wyden, speaking at a press conference announcing the bill, says he believes such arrangements might impair broadband consumers’ rights of access to the whole Internet. (See Net Neutrality Goes to Washington and Google Plans Video Service.)

“What I’m troubled by is the prospect of discrimination, where you will have these network operators giving their favorites –- usually the financially well-off –- the goodies, the fruits of the technological revolution and there won’t be much left for anybody else. And what is left over will come at a significantly higher price." (See Google Goes to Wonkytown.)

The broadband operators' motivations are probably a little more concrete. By charging QOS fees to increase the distribution costs of services like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Vonage Holdings Corp. (NYSE: VG), telephone and cable companies create a price advantage for their own video and voice services. (See Wyden Testifies on Neutrality.)

Wyden's bill apparently would prohibit such financial arrangements. The key provision of the bill reads as follows:

"A network operator shall not assess a charge to any application or service provider not on the network of such provider for the delivery of traffic to any subscriber to the network of such operator." (See Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate.)

The actual enforcement power granted by Wyden's bill, however, is a bit unclear. “The legislation does involve a variety of issues where you will have provisions with respect to the complain process and the rights of the aggrieved parties, but I don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that transparency equals strong enforcement,” Wyden said.

The phone companies strongly deny the need for Wyden's bill. "Quite frankly, this is an attempt to fix a problem that doesn't exist," Verizon spokesman David Fish told Light Reading Thursday. "This is a huge hypothetical -- it's like shadowboxing.

"Anybody who reveres the Internet and knows that it's been consumers, technology, and the marketplace that have allowed it to flourish, wonders why changing that now makes any sense."

In public, Wyden takes an aggressive stance against the cable and phone companies, which, between them, control 98 percent of the last-mile broadband networks.

“You kind of get the sense that the big network operators are saying 'Look, we built the network, we own the network, and everybody’s kind of got to go along with what we’re saying,' ” Wyden complains. “What I’m saying is: No, the consumer built the network, subscribers built the network..."

But Wyden’s legislation, and his rhetoric, will be born into a hostile world in Washington. Sentiment there has turned away from the net neutrality cause in recent weeks because of confusion over its goals and because of the efforts of a powerful telephone and cable lobby. (See Google Says No to QOS Fees.)

The lobbyists have a unified and simple message: They are telling lawmakers that because no major network neutrality breaches have occurred, it’s unnecessary to make new legislation -- based on speculation -- that may be difficult to undo in the future.

In the event that some service was blocked, they argue, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could quickly remedy the problem under existing telecom law.

Wyden is vague on how he will counter those arguments in the coming debate. “If the telephone and cable companies don’t want to be in the manipulation business, they will have no problem with my legislation."

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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