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Talk of stimulus funds ignites Net neutrality debate

Consumer advocates are pushing for Net neutrality regulation as the government debates rules for doling out $7.2 billion in stimulus funds to build broadband networks.

Consumer advocates are reigniting a debate over Net neutrality by insisting that the government require recipients of the government's $7.2 billion broadband stimulus package to adhere to special rules to ensure traffic on the Internet flows freely.

Consumer groups and Internet service providers faced off at a public hearing in Washington, D.C., on Monday set up to discuss how money from President Obama's economic stimulus package should be allocated. Public interest groups believe that the government should require companies receiving funds to adhere to special Net neutrality rules that would prevent them from discriminating against traffic traversing their networks. Service providers, on the other hand, believe that no conditions should be imposed that could hinder innovation or stifle their ability to manage their networks.

The U.S. departments of Commerce and Agriculture have been directed to disperse the broadband funding, which is supposed to help bring high-speed Internet services to underserved areas.

Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, argued at Monday's hearing that the government program is not meant to be a "charity" for broadband providers and that taxpayers should expect nondiscrimination conditions to ensure that Internet service providers don't take advantage of the funds by blocking certain kinds of traffic or choking off new and competing services.

But the phone companies and cable operators that provide broadband services have long argued that Net neutrality regulation essentially ties their hands and doesn't allow them to innovate or manage their networks properly.

The debate over Net neutrality started to heat up about three years ago, when congressional leaders first started holding hearings on new laws to ensure that Internet service providers couldn't monkey with traffic. The discovery that the nation's largest cable operator Comcast, had slowed down certain kinds of peer-to-peer traffic on its network, flamed the fire and sparked public outrage over such practices.

But the fight to create new laws to protect Net neutrality quieted down a bit after the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the communications industry, publicly admonished Comcast for violating its Net neutrality principles. These principles aren't regulation and the FCC is somewhat powerless in imposing any real punishment for violating the rules, but the public slap on the wrist coupled with public outcry was enough to get Comcast to change its practices.

For many folks in the industry, the FCC's handling of the situation and the public response seemed to be sufficient. And support for passing new laws or regulation that might later have unintended consequences, appeared to wane.

Congress has already rejected at least five bills that would impose Net neutrality regulations.

But during the presidential campaign, Net neutrality supporters got a lift when then-candidate Obama said he'd support Net neutrality regulation and laws. And now that he is president, these supporters are once again pushing for government action. Tying regulation to stimulus funds appears to be a logical way to get such rules in place, some advocates believe.

"I can't imagine a better time, when the government is doling out $7.2 billion, to have this conversation," Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, said during the hearing.

Many of the nation's largest phone companies and cable operators have already said that if such restrictions are put into place they might not be able to ask for money from the government to fund network build-outs to rural and underserved areas. And without additional government funds, it's unlikely that big players would accelerate plans to build broadband infrastructure in rural and underserved areas.

But Sohn said she thinks that with or without the big phone companies and cable operators, the infrastructure in those hard-to-reach areas of the country will still get built, since many smaller providers will be happy to get the money and will abide by the rules.

"There will be other people beating down the doors," she said.