The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has finished marking up the massive Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006. The last amendment to be considered was one that would have made the principle of network neutrality a matter of law. After an 11-11 vote on the amendment failed, the entire committee passed the legislation by a 15-7 margin.
The bill in its current form is far reaching. It gives armed forces members serving abroad a price break when phoning home, creates a broadband account within the Universal Service Fund in an attempt to extend the reach of broadband to places where it currently is not available, places restrictions on pornographic material online, and grants "national franchises" to telecoms (e.g., AT&T and Verizon) enabling them to offer television service throughout the country without having to negotiate local franchise agreements as cable companies have had to do. There is also a section that would bar states from prohibiting local governments from offering municipal broadband networks. As we noted previously, the broadcast flag for both television and radio is present in all of its glory.
Next up for the telecom bill is consideration by the full Senate… maybe. Net neutrality proponent Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced via e-mail yesterday that he has placed a "hold" on the legislation, due to its lack of an "effective policy" on net neutrality. "The days of unfettered, unlimited and free access to any site on the world wide web, what I call net neutrality, are being threatened," said Sen. Wyden. "Those who own the pipes, the giant cable and phone companies, want to discriminate on which sites you can access."
"The inclusion of this provision compels me to inform my colleagues that I would object to any unanimous consent request for the United States Senate to move to consider this bill."
As Commerce Committee Chariman Ted Stevens (R-AK) has noted, he lacks the 60 votes necessary to stop Sen. Wyden’s likely filibuster at this point. That could leave the bill dead in the water, unless a network neutrality amendment is offered from the floor. Other amendments may also be tacked onto or removed from the bill, with Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) on record as saying he may try to strip the broadcast flag from the legislation.
Since the bill faces uncertain prospects in the Senate and is radically different from legislation passed by the House of Representatives, it may not survive the 109th Congress at all. As fall elections near, this is an excellent opportunity for all of us in the United States to let our senators and representative know how we feel about the telecom reform bills in general as well as particular issues such as municipal broadband, the broadcast flag, and network neutrality.