US Congress to push for net neutrality legislation

US Congress will push for net neutrality legislation next year, one insider predicts.

The US Congress will push for net neutrality legislation next year, even though the US Federal Communications Commission has acted against broadband providers that it found to block or slow Web content, an adviser to a senior US senator said Thursday.

While the FCC has addressed what it saw as net neutrality violations on a case-by-case basis in recent years, a law passed by Congress would provide customers, investors, Web-based companies and broadband providers with certainty about the rules of the road, said Frannie Wellings, telecom counsel for Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat and cosponsor of a bill introduced in 2007 that would have created a net neutrality law.

"We definitely think legislation is necessary," said Wellings, speaking at a University of Nebraska College of Law forum on telecom law in Washington, DC.

Net neutrality merger conditions placed by the FCC upon AT&T in its December 2006 acquisition of rival BellSouth were "proof to us that the world doesn't end if you choose not to discriminate" against Internet content, Wellings added. Congress may also look at ways to spur broadband competition by going back to rules that require broadband providers to share their networks with competitors, and it may allow the US Federal Trade Commission to investigate broadband providers for unfair business practices, she added.

AT&T would prefer that the FCC continue to act on a case-by-case basis on net neutrality issues, said James Cicconi, the telecom's senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs. After a heated debate for a couple of years, there's been a consensus forming around net neutrality, with many broadband providers now acknowledging that customers want an open Internet and many net neutrality advocates acknowledging that network providers need to manage their networks for the good of customers, he said.

"There's a lot of people who now believe that companies like AT&T are not plotting to overthrow the open Internet concept," Cicconi said.

It's against AT&T's economic interest to block or slow Internet content, because customers demand an open Internet, he added. "Our core asset is our network," he said. "We get paid for carrying bits."

But new legislation could raise questions among investors in broadband providers, he added.

"There is definitely a need on the part of investors to not hobble the network operators," added Rebecca Arbogast, a principal with Stifel Nicolaus, a brokerage and investment firm.

While the FCC doesn't have hard rules against broadband providers blocking or slowing Internet content, "as a practical matter," it has made clear that such activities won't be allowed, she said. In the most recent case, the FCC ruled in August that cable modem provider Comcast was wrong in slowing some peer-to-peer and other traffic in the name of network management.

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