Post Tech: House lawmakers close to net neutrality bill

By Cecilia Kang
Friday, September 17, 2010; 5:50 PM

The House Commerce committee is getting close to crafting net neutrality legislation that would give the Federal Communications Commission authority for two years to enforce existing guidelines but leave out some key provisions pushed by public interest groups and some Internet companies.

Democratic and Republican staff members have been in talks for weeks on a bill that outlines how Internet service providers can treat Web content and applications. Their talks, which include telecom, cable, Internet firms and public interest groups, have taken place as the FCC'S own efforts were hobbled by a court decision that questioned the agency's authority.

"We are working hard on legislation to protect the open Internet," said Karen Lightfoot, a spokeswoman for the House Commerce Committee. "At this point in the legislative calendar, developing a bipartisan consensus is critical, which is what we are actively working to do."

According to Hill sources who were not authorized to speak publicly, the committee staffers have gained momentum in recent days on a narrow proposal that would give the FCC authority for two years to enforce its four open Internet principles.

But discussions have moved away from rules against paid "managed services" ¿ where a company can pay for prioritization on a network ¿ and a rule against discrimination. A provision that would include wireless services is still being hotly debated, according to one source. Some lawmakers, including Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have vocally opposed legislation that doesn't pertain to mobile technology networks.

The talks could still fall apart, though lawmakers hope to get a bill together by next week to make it available for vote in his Congressional session.

"This would be a big win for the Bells and cable," wrote Rebecca Arbogast, head of tech policy research at Stifel Nicholaus. "The strategy appears to reflect a strong stance by House Republicans, and an effort by the Democrats to obtain a minimum level of protection that would get the support of both the Republicans and Democrats."

One House staff member said the bill will reflect the "least worst" of options for parties on both sides of the issue. Telecommunications and cable firms would get a bill that doesn't give the FCC authority over broadband and only temporary authority to enforce net neutrality rules. Public interest groups and companies such as Skype, Facebook and other Internet firms would get a bill that at least gives them assurance that guidelines at the FCC are enforceable by law.

AT&T, Verizon Communications, Google, Skype and an open Internet coalition had been in talks with senior officials at the FCC for a legal blueprint on net neutrality. The discussions on the Hill appear to reflect an agreement struck by Google and Verizon that would allow for paid prioritization.

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