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Internet: the end of the beginning or ...
By Scott Bradner
With all the hype surrounding it, you would be forgiven if you thought that the vote in the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce on April 26th both killed and saved the Internet. I expect that the effect will be more on the killed than saved side but there is a long road to travel before the final outcome is known.
The House Committee was discussing amendments to a the "Communications, Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006." (The draft version of the Act and a list of the amendments that were considered are at http://energycommerce.house.gov/108/Markups/04262006markup1848.htm) This proposed Act would update the venerable Communications Act of 1934. (A law that was passed before the current apparently irresistible urge to come up with cute acronyms for laws came into play.) This draft is the latest version of the bill I wrote about last year (A telecom-regulation pipe dream - http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2005/112105bradner.html).
The draft is mostly about permitting national cable franchises. For example, letting Verizon apply at the federal level to offer cable TV services anyplace in the country without having to kiss the whatever of local TV franchise committees (35 out of 50 pages in the draft). The next major topic covered in the draft is a requirement for connected voice over IP providers to support enhanced 911 (9 pages). The remainder of the bill consists of 3 short sections. One (1 ½ pages) stops states from blocking municipalities from offering telecommunications services (including broadband Internet access) as long as such services do not get any better deal than normal commercial alternatives. Another (1 page) stops broadband service providers from requiring you to buy services you do not want in order to get something you do want. The other section (3 pages) would give the FCC's statement of principles (http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-05-151A1.pdf) about broadband services the force of law.
The last topic is what all the fuss was about. Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) offered alternative language (http://energycommerce.house.gov/108/Markups/04262006/markey_009_XML.PDF) that would require broadband Internet access provides to create a level playing field for Internet services. This is the same topic but not the same part of the US congress that I wrote about a while back (Father knows best about net neutrality - http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2006/022006bradner.html).
At first glance the FCC's 4 principles look reasonable and the draft's establishment of a half million dollar fine for violating the principles looks like the FCC might have teeth. Committee chair Joe Barton (R-TX) said that he thinks this is all that is needed. But the FCC's principles only talk about the ability to "access the lawful Internet content of their choice", to "run applications and use services of their choice", and to "connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network." The principles do not talk about providing a useful level of quality to those services the carrier has not extorted money from. The telcom industry says they will not take advantage of this omission (which the Markey amendment would have fixed) and I'm not one to mistrust the telcom industry (sure!).
Congressman Barton and the majority of the committee sided with the telcom industry who said that requiring them to provide a fair playing field was unfair to them and that broadband services would not be deployed if they had to be fair.
This could be the end of the dynamic Internet and the beginning of the innovate-when-Verizon-gets-around-to-it Internet - but the rest of congress has not yet spoken - there is a chance that the Senate will do the right thing, lets hope that this is not the last word.
disclaimer: There is no such thing as a 'last word' in most of Harvard but the university has expressed no official opinion on this topic so the above is my own rant.