AT&#38T chief, FCC chair clarify on Net neutrality

Whitacre says he has no plans to degrade service; FCC's Martin says companies should be allowed to recoup costs.

LAS VEGAS--AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre, whose comments initially ignited the debate over whether new laws were needed to preserve network neutrality, said here on Tuesday that fears his company and other big network providers would block traffic on their networks are overblown.

"Any provider that blocks access to content is inviting customers to find another provider," he said. "And that's just bad business."

The issue of Net neutrality, which centers on whether carriers should be able to charge different fees to content providers who access their network, bubbled to the surface during Whitacre's opening keynote address at the TelecomNext trade show here on Tuesday. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin also addressed the issue during his portion of the keynote.

Whitacre, who had been quoted in news reports as saying he didn't think companies such as Google should be given a "free ride" on his network, clarified his position on the subject by saying that AT&T had no intention of making any content unavailable to consumers.

"AT&T will not block or degrade traffic, period," he said. "And we won't change (our position) no matter what sky-is-falling rhetoric you hear. Markets work best when consumers have choices."

Speculation that the two biggest phone companies in the country, AT&T and Verizon Communications, are planning to create a tiered Internet system that would require big bandwidth hogs like Google or Yahoo to pay more for their access has become a hot-button issue in the tech industry.

Whitacre said bandwidth-intensive applications have forced his company to continually upgrade its network to accommodate demand. Last year alone, he said, AT&T spent $11.5 billion on capital expenditures for its wireline network, as well as for upgrades to Cingular Wireless, in which AT&T has a 60 percent stake.

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Charging content providers to differentiate their services on the AT&T network would simply help AT&T find a commercial solution to the problem, he said.

But some people fear that AT&T and other network operators, such as Verizon Communications, may abuse their control of the network. While they may not block traffic outright, they could limit the available bandwidth to degrade the service of competitors or companies choosing not to pay extra fees to enhance their service.

These critics support legislation that would make it illegal for phone companies and cable operators to degrade traffic or give priority to traffic at the expense of other Internet content.

Kevin Martin, the FCC chairman, said during his portion of the keynote address that he believes the FCC's existing principles are sufficient to address problems that may arise should network operators block traffic.

"I think the FCC has authority to act," he said. "And it has done so in the past."

Martin also said he supports the right for network operators to differentiate their networks and prioritize traffic on their networks.

"We need to make sure we have a regulatory environment (in which network operators) can invest in the network and can recoup their costs," he said.

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