Senate Looks to Rewrite Telecommunications Act

Suddenly noticing that the United States ranks 16th internationally in broadband adoption, federal lawmakers are finally taking a serious step toward updating the creaky Telecommunications Act of 1996.
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Suddenly noticing that the United States ranks 16th internationally in broadband adoption, federal lawmakers are finally taking a serious step toward updating the creaky Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Whether this amounts to a step forward, backward, into a wall or down a deep hole is still unclear. The only certainty is that it'll be at least another year before we see a new law.

A series of recent legislative moves has culminated in the release of a massive Senate draft bill that represents an amalgamation of previous bills, updating laws covering everything from video to satellite to broadband communications. It immediately became the flash point for a roiling rift between those for and against the issue of net neutrality, as well as a range of other contentious concerns including municipal Wi-Fi, digital broadcast video piracy, Universal Service Fund reform, and the role of the FCC.

Dubbed the Communications, Consumer's Choice and Broadband Deployment Act, the bill was reported out of the Senate Commerce Committee, headed by Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), indicating it will likely become the foundation for a final compromise with any House version that emerges.

The frisson generated by the bill arises out of its proposed broadband landscape rearrangement in the middle of the political season.

There's clear polarizing on net neutrality. On one side are Democrats following the cue of a newly formed "Save the Internet" coalition, which includes the gamut of freedom-loving groups, representing everyone from librarians to gun owners, as well as heavy net content hitters like Google and Amazon.

They argue for strong language barring network operators from exercising newly developed flow controls to offer bandwidth preference to some content (i.e. those willing to pay) over others.

They are currently being steamrollered by Senate Republicans led by Stevens, whose Senate Commerce Committee reported the bill. The GOP counterargument is that the Dems are just a gaggle of Chicken Littles, squawking about a problem that hasn't yet happened while hindering what's simply good business.

Lining their pockets are telco and cable operators--hardly public darlings. Their reasoning goes: we built it; we own it; we should be allowed to grant special status to content as we see fit.

LIFE IN THE FAST LANE

OK, so it's not that simple. A content provider that, say, offers movie downloads certainly falls into the bandwidth hog category, and it seems quite reasonable to allow operators to guard against network degradation. After all, high-bandwidth broadband services need to be economically viable, telco and cable execs argue.

But what if you're a VoIP Vonage subscriber, and your cable operator gives preference to its own VoIP service, allowing yours to degrade?

The Internet-huggers say that's one of their biggest worries. Invoking the public interest model, Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, warned that no net neutrality "would break with the entire history of the Internet." No Chicken Little there (and maybe he should check his facts with Al Gore).

Markey's attempt to tack on protective language was shot down in the days leading up to the Senate bill's release, by Republicans arguing that such measures were too premature.

And though the FCC last year released a set of "principles" relating to net neutrality, the bill does not grant the FCC any specific enforcement power--another area sure to be fought over.

Net neutrality may not be the only potential bill-killer.

This bill in one fell swoop would eliminate the raft of unfair state laws (greased with cable and telco money) banning low-cost or free municipal Wi-Fi networks. Some language will still protect private operators by requiring open bidding for public network contracts, but you can be sure money will be spent to overturn this section.

Less controversial is a section turning the FCC loose on digital video satellite and over-the-air radio receivers allowing users to digitally record (i.e. pirate) signals. New receivers would not be able to copy any flagged signal. Bill language, however, does allow for home-network sharing of digitally recorded broadcasts.

Other clauses that should garner bipartisan support: a revamp of the Universal Service Fund that would set up an account stimulating broadband service for "unserved areas," and a freeing of unused analog broadcast TV spectrum by 2009.

I'M JUST A BILL

As much heat as this bill has generated, it's not going anywhere anytime soon. With November looming, both sides are taking the pulse of voters to see if there's any traction on any of these issues.

In the last go-round a decade ago, the initial draft bill took nearly two years to become the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Back then, lawmakers such as bill proponent James Exon (D-Neb.) vowed that the "information superhighway" would not turn into a "red light district," and promised the bill would "help protect children from being exposed to obscene, lewd, or indecent messages."

MySpace was just a pipe dream back then; now it's reality--a child predator paradise, according to overblown media accounts.

Politicians this time around had best refrain from oversimplifications, and voters need to wise up as well. No law can "fix" the problems of the Internet.

What a good law can do is create a clear, level playing field that fosters real competition, looks ahead far enough to leave new technology development paths open, and gives true enforcement powers to the FCC.

Then, maybe, we might move up the broadband deployment charts instead of down.