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'Net Insider:

Bell-izing the Internet?

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 05/14/01            

For a bill titled "The Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act of 2001," and which says Internet access services should "not be subject to regulation by the States," House Resolution 1542 certainly has freaked out some pro-Internet folks.

The claim has been made that it would kill IP telephony and hand the Internet over to the big, bad telephone monopolies. I have a hard time figuring out what all the panic is about, but some smart people seem to be panicking.

The proposed legislation ostensibly fixes some problems in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that have let the Federal Communications Commission impose regulations that have "impeded the rapid delivery of high-speed Internet access services, thereby reducing customer choice and welfare."

Endangering our very welfare! Bad juju, indeed.

A little more reading of the bill and the picture might be a bit clearer. The welfare that seems to have been threatened is that of the Bell operating companies. And that is because the big bad FCC has said that the poor Baby Bells, the few that are left after the merger-itis attacks of the past few years, cannot offer Internet access service that crosses local access and transport area boundaries (going between phone regions). This seems to have, in the eyes of the bill's authors, "impeded the development of advanced telecommunications services."

I admit to being more than a bit skeptical that a Bell operating company would develop anything that anyone but it would call advanced telecommunications services. In the past, the term "advanced" has meant things such as the *69 call-back feature. Not all that earthshaking.

But with their money as a driver, the Bells could sure mess up the competitive landscape by offering brain-dead services that could confuse customers into thinking they were getting real Internet access. Rewarding phone companies for their supposed ability to innovate seems like a broken system to me, but does not seem to be the end of the Internet world.

What else might be wrong with this bill? It tries to legally define the Internet, and doesn't do too bad a job. Some people might think defining the Internet will remove some of the mystery, but I'm not one of them.

A number of people have pointed to Section 6 of the bill as maybe banning Internet telephony. I cannot tell - the section is worded in the special language that seems to be endemic to many in Washington - full of words but unclear in actual intent (i.e., lawyer fodder). The surface meaning is that it keeps the Bells from using IP telephony over any new inter-LATA Internet connections to get around the fact that they cannot offer long-distance phone service. That may be in fact what it means, but if so, that would be a good thing. Who can tell what trickery lies in the hearts of the phone company supporters?

Disclaimer: Harvard builds lawyers and some of them might like this bill, but I did not ask.

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