House passes Telecom Bill without “net neutrality”

Largely ratifying the policy agenda of the nation's largest telco companies, the House of Representatives last week passed the most comprehensive telecommunications legislation since 1996.

Though the bill passed the House by a large margin — 321 to 101 — its prospects are highly uncertain in the Senate, where the issues at stake are far more contentious and the legislative clock is running out.

Proponents of the legislative package argued that it would promote competition and lower costs by enabling the telephone companies to offer bundled packages of video, telephone, broadband, wireless and mobile phone services in new markets.

Sponsored by Rep. Joe L. Barton, (R-TX), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the legislation was designed to make it much easier and cheaper for the phone companies to offer video services across the country by pre-empting the regulatory authority of municipal franchise officials. The telephone companies have been waging an expensive and protracted town-by-town contest with their cable rivals to offer video services.

The legislation, the New York Times reported, would replace the regulatory role of more than 30,000 local franchising authorities with a national system supervised by the FCC. The current process has significantly slowed the ability of companies like Verizon and AT&T to challenge the cable and satellite television companies with their own version of video services.

However, the House bill omits what many consider a critical element. In a concession to the telephone and cable companies, the legislation does nothing to prevent them from charging Internet content providers a premium for carrying services like video offerings that could rival those of the telecom companies.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) had sought to amend the legislation to prohibit such practices. Support for the provision, called “Net Neutrality,” brought together such competitors as Google and Microsoft. But the amendment failed in the House by a vote of 269 to 152.

Critics of the legislation argue that a Net Neutrality provision is vital to maintain a free and open Internet. It is also necessary, they say, to prevent the telephone and cable companies, which are increasingly going into the content business, from favoring their own products over those of others.

If the telephone companies can charge more to particular content providers, critics say, the telephone and cable companies will ultimately offer broadband services that more closely resemble television services, with more limited choices than those now available on the Internet.

The Times reported that the vote reflected the considerable clout of the telephone industry in the House, and in particular its ties to the Republican leadership there. Rivals of the phone companies, particularly the cable industry, appear for now to have more important allies in the Senate. And the Senate's rules and customs, unlike those in the House, make it easier for a smaller number of lawmakers to influence and delay legislation.

Another factor against the legislation is timing. The legislative calendar leaves little time for the two chambers of Congress to reach a final agreement on a telecommunications bill as ambitious as the one considered by the House.