May 1, 2006 4:40 PM PDT
Net neutrality missing from sweeping telecom bill
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The dozens of contentious topics that Stevens chose to address are likely to complicate negotiations this time around as well.
Net neutrality, for instance, has become a rallying cry recently for Internet and software firms and liberal advocacy groups (and even one or two conservative ones) that say strict FCC regulations are necessary to protect the Internet. Net neutrality refers to the idea of the federal government preventing broadband providers from favoring some Web sites or video streams' connection speeds over others.
Large telephone and cable companies have argued against the need to put such principles into law, saying they're not interested in blocking sites or services but deserve the right to charge extra for such a "fast lane" to make their investments in bandwidth-hogging services and new technologies economically viable. Broadband providers have spent billions of dollars to run fiber or faster links to American homes and businesses.
Another contentious topic is whether municipal governments should be competing with private companies by running their own broadband networks. This bill would authorize it--and zap state laws, including one in Pennsylvania that have restricted such activity. (A bill introduced in the House last year takes the opposite approach and bans all such municipal networks.)
Under Stevens' proposal, called the Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act, municipalities would face some restrictions designed to prevent discrimination by public-sector enterprises against private-sector ones. Governments would be forced, for instance, to post public notice of any projects they planned to undertake and to have an open bidding process if they planned to bring on any private corporations as partners. That provision borrows from a broadly pro-business broadband bill introduced last summer by Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican.
Raising broadband taxes
Also, if Stevens' legislation passes, a broader swath of Americans would be taxed for the Universal Service Fund, a controversy-plagued, multibillion-dollar pool of money that's currently used to subsidize telecommunications services in rural and other high-cost areas, schools and libraries.
Critics--including Stevens, a self-avowed USF proponent--have charged that the fund has steadily been dwindling because traditional services, such as long-distance, are taking in less money, while unanticipated voice technologies, such as voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, are not expressly required to pay up. (A number of the larger VoIP providers, including Vonage, have said they already pay into the fund.)
The Stevens-Inouye proposal would require all companies providing a "communications service" to pay into the fund, which most likely would translate into another line item on customer bills. The bill defines "communications service" as a telecommunications service, a broadband service offering transmission speeds of at least 200 kilobits per second in one direction, and an IP-enabled voice service that connects to the public-switch telephone network. That means services like the voice-chat feature on AOL Instant Messenger would not be subject to the tax.
It would be up to the FCC to decide how to levy the fees. It could choose, for instance, to charge an USF fee to each phone number or IP address or to continue the current model, in which companies contribute a fixed portion of their revenues to the fund.
Like a proposal introduced last week by Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, a Republican on Steven's committee, the new bill would also create a separate "broadband service for unserved areas" account within the USF that would allow up to $500 million of support each year for such ventures.
"The overarching theme of the bill we introduce today is deployment of broadband nationwide," Stevens said in a statement upon introducing the bill.
The approach, however, does not enjoy unanimous support. Free-market thinkers and their sympathizers, including Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, tend to argue that because of evidence that broadband prices are on the decline, the fund should be capped or even phased out entirely.
The bill also revisits freeing up bands on the broadcast television spectrum for various purposes, including more affordable broadband deployments. It sets forth requirements for a consumer education campaign related to the digital television transition, which Congress approved late last year. That measure requires broadcasters to vacate the analog spectrum by Feb. 17, 2009, so that it can be turned over to public safety workers and auctioned off for new wireless services.
Like a number of its predecessors, the bill also proposes allowing unused channels, or "white spaces," on the broadcast television bands to be snapped up for unlicensed wireless ventures.
Consumer advocates say the properties of that chunk of the radio spectrum would enable cheaper and easier setup of broadband networks. The broadcasting lobby has railed against the idea, fearing interference with their stations' reception. The new bill would require the FCC to vet such concerns and to set rules aimed at staving off such conflicts.
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