January 31, 2007 11:05 AM PST
Net neutrality, broadband taxes top House tech agenda
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Brokering a truce between Internet companies and network operators that have been battling over Net neutrality legislation is a top priority, Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia said in his kickoff speech at an annual conference organized by the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee. Boucher is a co-chairman of the caucus.
Last year, Boucher voted for an unsuccessful amendment--fiercely opposed by broadband providers--that would have imposed strict regulations on them. He moderated his tone slightly on Wednesday, saying, "I don't want to do anything in terms of a legislative remedy that ensures an open and accessible Internet but has the effect of hobbling innovation inside the network."
Boucher and Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, also plan to push hard over the next few months for passage of a proposal, introduced two years ago, that would create new broadband taxes. Their bill would formally allow companies that receive such subsidies to use them for deploying broadband service, which existing law does not.
Right now, telecommunications companies--including those offering wireless, pay-phone, traditional-telephone and DSL services--are taxed on a fixed percentage of their long-distance revenue and required to pay it into a multibillion-dollar fund.
Concerned that dwindling long-distance revenue has eroded the fund, the Federal Communications Commission last year extended a similar requirement to some voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) providers as well.
Boucher said his bill would spread the contribution requirements among "all who offer a network connection" and require companies to collect fees on local telephone calls as well. He said the new sources will "replenish the fund and enable it to be sustained."
It was unclear how high the new taxes would be, but companies typically pass those fees on to consumers in the form of a line item charge. The bill would also place an undisclosed cap on the amount of money distributed to companies for rolling out services in rural and high-cost areas. Boucher said he hopes that it will go to a floor vote by the end of the year.A pledge for patent system reform
Patent system overhauls may get attention on the U.S. House of Representatives floor as soon as March or April, Boucher said. He said Rep. Howard Berman, the incoming chairman of a key House intellectual-property panel, plans to begin holding hearings on the topic "very soon" and act on sweeping legislation afterward.
"The technology industry, perhaps more than any other, has been victimized by the poor quality of patents that often issue from the Patent Office," Boucher said, promising that its ongoing cries for change would be "rewarded early in this Congress."
That bill, which has not yet been introduced, would take a number of steps aimed at weeding out bad patents. Those include requiring pending patent applications to be made public 18 months after being filed so that the public would have a chance to submit prior art--that is, evidence that a given invention may be predated by earlier products or ideas--to patent examiners, who may not be able to find it on their own.
The bill would also set up a "postgrant opposition" process within the Patent and Trademark Office so that anyone could challenge issued patents without having to go to court and face what Boucher called "an almost insurmountable evidentiary standard."
By the end of the year, Congress should also revive two portions of a House communications law rewrite that passed last year but ultimately died because the Senate never acted on the measure, Boucher said.
One section would make it legal nationwide for local governments to offer their own broadband service. Dozens of cities are already rolling out such projects, but a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia, have passed laws limiting or prohibiting such ventures in the future.
"Government ought to be able to come in and fill the gap," particularly in rural areas where cable and telephone companies may be reluctant to spend the money to set up networks, Boucher said.
Boucher said he was also confident that Congress could act swiftly on legislation requiring all network operators to offer customers the option of purchasing standalone Internet access services--that is, not just when bundled with telephone or other services. In addition to offering consumers more flexibility, such a policy could promote the growth of Internet phone services that ride on broadband pipes, Boucher said.
On Net neutrality, Boucher restated his support for legislation "to ensure the Internet remains open and accessible." He said he worried that if network operators are allowed to charge premium fees for faster delivery or other prioritization, promising start-ups will never have the chance to turn into the next Google or Yahoo.
On the other hand, he indicated that he is sympathetic to one of the major arguments made by network operators opposed to Net neutrality regulations. That argument: Internet providers need the option of charging fees to support vast investments in their infrastructure.
Some of Boucher's colleagues have already announced their intentions to act on Net neutrality legislation this year. Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) wasted no time in reintroducing a bill aimed at prohibiting discrimination by network operators, and Rep. Edward Markey, the new Democratic chairman of a key House Internet and telecommunications panel, has said he plans to hold hearings on the topic.
Politicians must be cautious about how they proceed and seek a compromise among the warring players in the Net neutrality debate, Boucher said. "We can't advance content origination at the expense of network technology innovation," he said, "and these may be competing concerns as we draft a network neutrality provision."
CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.
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