OVERNIGHT TECH: Net Neutrality consensus remains elusive

22 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Cable, wireless groups voice support for GOP’s net neutrality bill.

WASHINGTON — Republicans are waging a last-minute campaign to gather support for net neutrality legislation that critics say will undermine the principles of a free and open Internet. But the small city received a big boost to its national profile last week when President Barack Obama traveled there to unveil a new broadband policy initiative aimed at spurring high-speed infrastructure investment across the United States.President Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to implement a strict policy of net neutrality and to oppose content providers in restricting bandwidth to customers.On Thursday, the New Jersey Democrat will introduce a bill that would help local towns set up public alternatives to big Internet providers such as Comcast or Verizon.A day after President Obama renewed his calls for a “free and open Internet” in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, the new Republican-led Congress is set to open debate Wednesday for new legislation meant to preserve the controversial principle known as “net neutrality.” At issue is how the Internet should be regulated.

At the hearings, lawmakers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation solicited testimony from experts in the internet and telecommunications industries about the bill, which can still be revised before assuming its final form. It would amend the nation’s signature telecom law — the Communications Act — to make it illegal for states to prohibit municipal broadband through new regulations or state legislation.

Should Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon be allowed to make “fast lanes” for content they want to prioritize, or should the government step in to ensure that providers treat all web content the same? It claims to impose regulations on consumer broadband Internet that net neutrality supporters have long advocated for, but critics say the bill is written in a way that will fail to uphold equal Internet access. Booker said more cities should aspire to be like Chattanooga, Tenn., which offers public broadband plans at speeds of 1 gigabit per second for $70 a month.

It’s able to do this thanks to Cedar Falls Utilities, a municipally owned network that offers residents high-speed Internet access, which the president highlighted as an important option to help close the digital divide in America. The commission is considering applying Title II to protect new rules against an anticipated lawsuit from a telecom like Verizon, said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. But many are held back, he said, by “industry that wants to maintain monopolies in many ways.” Booker’s bill, the Community Broadband Act, seeks to counter other attempts by the GOP to strip away federal regulators’ authority to promote city-run broadband. The FCC is expected to favor reclassification in next month’s vote, although the agency is certain to face lawsuits from cable and telecom companies if it does so. Those few words hint at several looming clashes between the White House and the big phone and cable companies that provide broadband to most Americans.

Republicans supported the lawsuit by Verizon Communications that successfully struck down the previous net neutrality rules last year on the grounds that the FCC did not have legal authority to enforce them. A provision in the Republican-sponsored bill would stop the FCC from making the reclassification, undercutting the agency’s ability to do what Obama has requested. Those representing internet service providers generally supported it, and representatives of online retailers and content providers tending to favor action by the FCC. In House and Senate committee hearings on Wednesday, Democrats expressed open skepticism of the proposal and its potential loopholes. “There’s a lot of things in the Republican draft proposal that are non-starters,” Sen. Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of industry trade group The Wireless Association, told lawmakers she supports the bill, saying it gives Congress “the opportunity to provide the same regulatory stability for broadband as it did for all of mobility in 1993,” when it established a regulatory approach to mobile devices that protected consumers while promoting cost-cutting and innovation. “The draft bill is an excellent start,” she declared. “And offers a reasonable path toward ensuring the preservation of an open Internet with real, enforceable requirements.” Conversely, Jessica Gonzalez of the National Hispanic Media Coalition argued that, “the discussion draft suffers from a number of fatal flaws that could permanently debilitate the FCC and lead to disastrous unintended consequences.” According to Gonzalez, the bill in its current form “blesses some forms of discrimination and strips the FCC of authority that could be used to achieve shared policy goals,” such as universal service and rural access.

Previously, many Republicans had called such net neutrality regulations “Obamacare for the Internet,” saying they were the invasion of big government onto the web (though such regulations had been in place from the Internet’s start). Now the FCC appears ready to put rules in place under a different section of the law that would treat broadband providers like regulated phone companies and other utilities. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told The Huffington Post in an interview. “I’m worried about the most vibrant, competitive part of our economy getting hamstrung.” But former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell was much more optimistic, contending that the bill has no problematic loopholes. “The FCC should hit the pause button, I think there’s actually some traction here potentially for bipartisan solutions,” he told HuffPost. But although some form of Internet access is practically ubiquitous today, more than 50 million Americans aren’t online, and for many it’s because they still can’t get affordable next-generation broadband service. Though the proposal offers many concessions to net neutrality advocates, critics maintain that it still fails to uphold important net neutrality principles.

Even if regulations could be applied flawlessly at the federal level, he explained, “Title II regulation of the Net could trigger state and local regulations, taxes, and fees” that could cost customers up to $15 billion a year. (RELATED: The Consumer Costs of Net Neutrality) In addition, forbearance would require the FCC to select “just a few” of Title II’s “approximately 1,000 heavy-handed requirements,” making its orders “impossible to defend in court” because they will appear “arbitrary and politically driven to appellate judges.” “The tragedy of this debate,” McDowell said, “is that no one … has ever contested the goals of keeping the Internet open,” but nonetheless, “the fight has devolved into a question of how overreaching and heavy-handed the FCC would be in pursuing its ostensible goals.” Content created by The Daily Caller News Foundation is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a large audience. Republicans were left in the position of defending an industry that routinely ranks last in national consumer-satisfaction surveys. “By turning the FCC away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs,” said Sen.

According to an analysis published on Tuesday by Barbara van Schewick, director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, the legislation “provides network neutrality in name only.” “The bill is so narrowly written that it fails to adequately protect users, innovators, and speakers against blocking, discrimination, and access fees,” she and co-author Morgan N. A big part of the problem is competition: Most Americans live in areas where only a single provider offers truly high-speed connectivity (more than 25 megabits per second), and it often comes with a steep price tag. Opponents of municipal broadband argue the FCC, a federal agency, is not allowed to step in between states and the cities they govern. “While government may seem scary to some people, I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it weren’t for the government protecting my rights,” Booker said in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday.

Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, said the bill had some potential loopholes, such as an exemption for “specialized services,” that broadband providers could exploit to allow paid prioritization and other discriminatory behavior “The Internet is dynamic. It’s no secret that the high-speed Internet options in many parts of the United States are slower and more expensive than what’s available in Europe and Asia—even big cities like New York and Los Angeles, which have multiple Internet service provider options, don’t have cheap, fast service.

It’s a ‘trust us’ bill. ‘Hey, trust Comcast, because of course they have your best interests at stake.’ ” More significantly, perhaps, the bill would make broadband an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service.” The distinction is crucial. The FCC needs that authority to take action on another proposal, also coming up for a vote in February, to overturn state laws that prevent cities and other local governments from offering their own broadband service as competition to private providers. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said he believed the legislation remains “fair to everyone.” But he acknowledged, “Some of my colleagues across the aisle are still unhappy.” Yet the legislation’s backers will have to win over not only Democrats, but also skeptical Republicans like Sen. The Commerce Department is launching a new initiative called BroadbandUSA, offering technical assistance to communities (both online and in-person), hosting regional workshops, and creating tools to help cities plan, finance, build, and operate their own networks. Others expressed concerns that the legislation, although banning such things as paid prioritization will still leave Internet providers with the ability to create a two-tiered Internet.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture will help rural providers finance networks through both grant and loan programs geared specifically toward rural areas that are falling behind. Walden is also the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which held a hearing Wednesday on its own plan to protect the open Internet. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who called himself a “paid prioritization” guy in favor of light regulation — said that he has come around to recognize that government action is a reality. They say their proposal would, among other things, prevent broadband providers from charging Internet companies more for special fast lanes. “Esty is a low-margin business,” Dickerson said. “We couldn’t afford to pay for priority access to consumers, yet we know that delays of even milliseconds have a direct and long-term impact on revenue.” “What is abundantly clear in the majority’s proposal is to purposely tie the hands of the FCC by prohibiting them from reclassifying broadband,” said Rep. At least 19 states currently have laws on the books that make it more difficult to build local broadband networks, ranging from outright prohibitions to onerous requirements that can discourage cities from pursuing a project.

So they’ve exerted their influence in state legislatures across the country to make building locally owned networks more difficult—often to the chagrin of local leaders who recognize the importance of bringing high-speed access to their communities. And now Obama’s opinion is on the record, too: He asked the director of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to send a letter to the FCC last week explaining the administration’s official view. And as municipal broadband policy has become an increasingly political issue in Washington, D.C., it remains to be seen how Congress might respond if the FCC decides to act.

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