Tech manufacturers rally against Net neutrality

Makers of networking hardware, applications urge Congress to hold off on regulations they say could disrupt the way the Internet works.

WASHINGTON--Producers of networking hardware and applications gathered around a podium at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday with a single message: Not all "high-tech" companies support so-called Net neutrality legislation.

At a press conference here, more than a dozen representatives from companies like Corning, Tyco and Motorola urged the U.S. Senate to pass a massive communications bill--attacked by Net neutrality fans for failing to ensure nondiscriminatory treatment of Internet content--as soon as possible.

Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat and a primary sponsor of a narrower House of Representatives measure approved in June by a 321 to 101 vote, joined the industry representatives in calling for Senate action "right away." He stressed that the legislation will "deliver much-needed relief to cable rates" sought by his Chicago-area constituents.

Supporters say the Senate measure, which was approved by a committee vote in June but has since gotten hung up chiefly over Net neutrality, is crucial because it would make it easier for new video service providers--such as telephone companies hoping to roll out IPTV--to enter the market, increase competition for cable, and thus spur lower prices. Among other benefits, they say, it would also permit municipalities to offer their own broadband services.

"There are a lot of good things in this bill," Tim Regan, a vice president with fiber optic cable manufacturer Corning Inc., said of the Senate's efforts. "Let's not let this get tied up over the most contentious thing out there, which is Net neutrality."

"Don't be confused by these spurious complaints about Net neutrality," Rush said. "Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem."

Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem.
--U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, Illinois Democrat

There are some Net neutrality rules in the Senate bill that would grant more authority to the Federal Communications Commission, but not as much as companies like Google and eBay would like.

Rush's stance differs from that of many of his Democratic colleagues. He told reporters after the press conference that no new legislation is needed both because no problem exists and the FCC has shown it can quickly deal with any complaints. In a 2005 case, a small telephone company agreed to stop blocking voice over Internet Protocol calls after the regulators stepped in.

Not to be upstaged by the recent lobbying efforts of Net neutrality fans, opponents of the regulations have stepped up their activities this week.

Opponents ramping up
On Monday, the Senate Commerce Committee's Republican members, who generally oppose protections sought by Internet companies and consumer groups, presented the findings (click for PDF) of a poll of 800 registered voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The survey found that 91 percent of respondents had never heard of Net neutrality, although 78 percent said it was important to enact a "consumer bill of rights" that guarantees them full access to legal Internet content and prohibits providers from blocking or interfering with the data they send and receive.

In connection with Tuesday's press conference, more than 100 companies from the networking and communications sector, including Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks and Qualcomm, also signed their names to a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Democratic Leader Harry Reid. The one-page document encouraged them to schedule a vote "in the very near future," adding that it was "too soon to enact network neutrality legislation."

The "consumer bill of rights" approach embedded in the Senate bill is sufficient to protect consumer concerns over access to Web content and services, the companies said. Opponents of the provision, such as Google, Amazon.com and a broad coalition of consumer and advocacy groups, have said it falls short because it would not restrict network operators like Verizon and AT&T from favoring their own content or brokering deals with Internet content companies for special treatment, potentially squeezing out garage innovators who can't afford to pay for such perks.

An aide to Frist said Tuesday that it remains unclear when a vote will be scheduled. She said Frist is still waiting on Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, the communications bill's chief sponsor, to confirm he has the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster.

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