No one's neutral about net neutrality

By Amanda Becker
Monday, December 20, 2010

When the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month revealed he had circulated among his fellow commissioners a draft proposal to ensure continued Internet openness, the criticism started rolling in.

Next-generation Internet companies such as Netflix and Skype said Julius Genachowski's net neutrality proposal was weak; public interest groups complained that it would be challenged in the courts because it did not adequately establish the commission's authority over the Internet; entrepreneurs said its provisions would stifle innovation; and the trade association representing broadband service providers reiterated its position that there isn't a problem that requires regulation in the first place.

The dissonance has been a boon for K Street and its echoes are unlikely to fade anytime soon.

Over the past three years, more than 150 organizations hired at least 118 outside lobbying groups to influence the outcome of the vote currently scheduled for the commission's open meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 21, a Capital Business analysis of congressional lobbying records shows.

Coalitions of start-up enterprises, content creators, trade associations and established cable and telecommunications companies deployed hundreds of lobbyists from solo outfits, boutique shops, full-service firms and everything in between to meetings before the FCC and on Capitol Hill.

"Those that didn't have the money to pay for a lobbyist in Washington weren't unrepresented but they certainly weren't represented to the same extent the major [telecommunications] carriers were," said Joel Kelsey, policy adviser to the open-Internet group Free Press.

The Alpine Group's link to one commissioner was likely attractive to the clients that made it the most often hired net neutrality lobbying shop in town. Though the 17-member group does not specialize in telecommunications or cable industry issues, its lobbyists include a former legislative assistant to the House committee that oversees telecommunications regulation and a law school grad who once interned for FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps. The American Cable Association, the Business Software Alliance, the Recording Industry Association of America and Warner Music Group all signed on with the firm.

Solo lobbyist Mitch F. Rose and the Fritts Group boutique firm weren't far behind. Rose, previously a vice president of government relations at the Walt Disney Co. and consultant to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, was tapped by the industry group and companies such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Fritts Group founder Eddie Fritts spent 23 years as the chief executive of the National Association of Broadcasters, making his firm an ideal choice for DirecTV, the Motion Picture Association of America, News Corp. and others.

The work of these firms and others was crucial to Genachowski's recent indication that his proposal will ultimately include a usage-based pricing provision that grants Internet service providers "meaningful flexibility" to manage their networks -- a victory for ISPs. AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable have collectively employed more than 60 firms for net neutrality-related work, including shops such as Capitol Solutions, Crossroads Strategies, Ogilvy Government Relations and Quinn, Gillespie & Associates.

Even if the commission approves the proposal, influencers expect the work to continue. Congressional representatives critical of the FCC's push to crown itself Internet regulator, including incoming House Commerce and Energy Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), have already warned that the next step is a bevy of hearings and inquiries that will keep K Street busy.

"For the past couple of years [defining net neutrality] has been like nailing Jello to the wall," said the Alpine Group's Rhod Shaw. "I think it's an issue that will keep going, but it's going to be in a different form."

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