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Senate panel poised for Net neutrality vote

Communications bill planned for committee debate Thursday also tackles municipal networks, broadband subsidies and the broadcast flag.

The tussle over Net neutrality regulations appears to be nearing its final stages in Congress.

The Senate Commerce Committee plans to begin on Thursday afternoon what is likely to turn into many hours of debate on a broad, contentious communications bill (click here for PDF). Committee aides said they expect scores of amendments and, if feasible, a final vote by day's end--though some said the proceeding could stretch into next week.

Net neutrality, the idea that network operators must treat all content equally, has become a pivotal issue as Congress attempts to rewrite the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Some say the 10-year-old law is outdated because it could not take into account the explosion of the Internet. The bill also tackles other hot-button issues such as municipal networks, broadband subsidies and the broadcast flag.

So far, the Republican-dominated legislative body has proved largely unreceptive to the idea of detailed new regulations sought by a broad array of Internet companies and consumer groups. Those organizations, allied under slogans like "Save the Internet," want a blanket ban on a new business model that large network operators have been openly contemplating--charging sites and services a premium fee for priority placement and speeds across their pipes. The Net neutrality issue has backing from an array of businesses and celebrities ranging from Google to the musician Moby.

Failure to legislate would lead to unprecedented Internet gatekeeping and higher prices for consumers, Net neutrality advocates say. Network operators counter that there's no evidence of any discriminatory behavior and that regulations will stifle companies' ability to offset vast investments in expanding their offerings.

The House of Representatives earlier this month rejected an amendment that would have put Net neutrality principles into law. The final version of its telecommunications bill would give the Federal Communications Commission exclusive power to levy fines on network operators that interfere with their customers' ability to surf the Web, connect devices and run applications as they please, within certain parameters. The FCC would not be permitted to make new rules addressing the subject.

The Senate could be on pace to take a similar, if slightly more regulatory, approach. The latest version of the 159-page Communications, Consumers' Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006 would establish an "Internet consumer bill of rights" that would write a number of specific Internet access principles into law and give the FCC policing--but not rule making--powers.

But a handful of mostly Democratic committee members, including Co-chairman Daniel Inouye, have pledged to continue to push for the additional rules requested by tech heavyweights like Google, Amazon.com, eBay and Microsoft.

"Under the current language, network operators will have the ability to dictate what the Internet of the future will look like, what content it will include and how it will operate," Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, said in a statement earlier this week.

Inouye is one of eight Democrats who have joined Maine Republican Olympia Snowe in backing a bill called the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which would impose stricter regulations. Committee aides said North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, that bill's other chief sponsor, is likely to offer an amendment that would tack his proposal onto the Senate bill.

Just as forceful on the other side of the debate are a number of the committee's Republicans. They argue that any new regulations will stifle the growth of broadband networks and the spread of new, high-bandwidth services, such as video.

"We have principles that have already been put forward by the FCC supporting Internet freedom, if that's what we want to call it," New Hampshire Republican John Sununu said at a hearing last week.

Broadband for all

Only a fraction of the Senate's mammoth bill actually deals with Net neutrality.

The overarching goal for much of the legislation, backers say, is speeding the deployment of broadband services to every corner of America, however poor or remote. In tackling that goal, the bill covers far more territory than does its House counterpart.

Among other provisions, the Senate bill would:

• Give local governments the right to deploy their own broadband networks. The measure is designed to preempt existing laws in a number of states which, under pressure from large network operators, have decided to restrict the ability of cities to set up shop. Under the Senate proposal, cities would have to publish notice of their proposals, seek public comment, explore partnerships with private companies and disclose the estimated cost to taxpayers.

• Set aside up to $500 million per year from the Universal Service Fund especially for broadband in "unserved" areas. The bill also seeks to expand that multibillion dollar pool of money, which currently comes from fees passed on to wireless, wireline and pay phone customers, and soon, to voice over Internet Protocol subscribers as well. The fund has come under tough criticism because of allegations of fraud, waste and abuse, and others question expanding the subsidies in a marketplace where broadband prices appear to be decreasing.

• Allow wireless devices to operate on unused broadcast television airwaves, or "white spaces." Companies interested in deploying Wi-Fi networks covet those bands of spectrum because the inherent scientific properties could enable cheaper and easier setup--and thus more-widespread access for rural and low-income areas. But the politically powerful National Association of Broadcasters has voiced resistance to the idea, arguing that the devices would muddle the reception of over-the-air TV stations.

The flag is still there

Another hot-button issue buried in the bill is the revival of a now-defunct FCC copy-protection regime known as the broadcast flag. The FCC's original rules would have made it illegal to "sell or distribute" any digital TV product that lacked the technology to limit a person's ability to redistribute video clips--particularly over the Internet--made from recorded over-the-air broadcasts.

A federal court yanked down the flag last spring after concluding that the FCC didn't have the authority to require manufacturers to include the flag in their products. The bill, however, would expressly grant regulators that power. It would also permit the FCC to make similar rules for digital radio receivers.

A coalition of librarians and public interest groups filed suit against the original flag regulations last year, arguing that they would threaten, among other things, consumers' ability to make "fair use" of copyright works.

"It puts Hollywood, acting through the FCC, in charge of how consumer electronics manufacturers should build their devices," said Art Brodsky, a spokesman for the nonprofit group Public Knowledge, one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

Senate committee aides said earlier this week that a number of Republicans share concerns about the government's wading into technological mandates. They would rather not see the provisions in the bill at all but added them after pressure from Democrats like Barbara Boxer, who counts a large chunk of the entertainment industry in her California constituency.

"Piracy is a dagger in the heart of all the industries that rely on intellectual-property protection," Dan Glickman, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, told the politicians at a hearing last week, "and we believe that your bill will help us in the fight against piracy."

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