A vote on one telecommunications bill that seeks to address Net Neutrality is expected later this week, but just what will be voted on is far from clear. Dubbed the Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006 (S.2686), the Senate bill backed by Ted Stevens (R-AK) could be voted on as early as this Thursday, June 22. The vote would take place in the Commerce Committee’s weekly session, a necessary step before reaching the attention of the full Senate.
Stevens’ bill takes a studied approach to Net Neutrality, literally. The bill’s current form would authorize the FCC to study the issue of Net Neutrality for a period of five years in order to separate reality from the rhetoric, as it were. The FCC would also handle complaints of abuse during that time. But Stevens’ ranking colleague on the Commerce Committee, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), has said that this is too little, and Inouye has offered his own legislation as a tactic to push Stevens into a compromise.
Thus for Stevens, the issue is one of bringing Inouye on board. A loyal Republican, Stevens largely backs the White House’s position on the issue, believing that the FCC itself is already equipped to handle complaints of abuse and that new laws are not truly needed. As a general opponent of "government interference" in business, Stevens is also a firm believer that it would be inappropriate for the FCC to prevent internet service providers from developing new services, such as Quality of Service (QoS) enhancements.
A new draft of the Stevens’ bill looks to strike a balance between his concerns and his hopes to see this legislation through, making good on comments he made last week. The draft of the legislation aims to protect consumers’ rights by forbidding the blocking of any traffic or application, while stopping short of instructing companies on what they can and cannot do with "their networks." This approach differs from so-called strict Net Neutrality by essentially leaving businesses untouched. Proponents of this approach believe that it would protect consumers by securing access to all public Internet traffic and services, while opponents argue that internet service providers could simply impair the performance of the public Internet to their own advantage. At the heart of the matter is bandwidth. Would internet service providers have to effectively downgrade Joe Consumer’s bandwidth in order to sell his neighbor a "quality of service" add-on that would prioritize his own traffic? Stevens believes that this latter concern, while important, is already under the purview of the FCC.
One competing House bill, the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act (HR 5417), would make it an antitrust violation to "block impair, discriminate or interfere with anyone’s services or applications or content," but the bill also addresses the kinds of service improvements that Stevens would rather not touch. For example, this House bill would make it illegal to offer Quality of Service improvements for specific data types unless those improvements were available universally (that is, you can’t favor your own VoIP service to the exclusion of others). The bill’s fate is looking grim, however, as a competing bill passed a House vote earlier this month. The Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE Act) is quite similar with respects to the Network Neutrality provisions in Stevens’ new draft bill, and it also leaves businesses largely untouched. An amendment that would have made the law more strict was shot down 269 votes to 152.
Should Stevens’ new bill make it out of committee, we believe that it would likely pass in the Senate, meaning that the House and Senate would have largely similar bills that could be reconciled and then put into law by the end of the year. If this happens, "public Internet" protections will likely be encoded into law, but the more divisive topic of service "innovation" would be left largely unaddressed. Call it Net Neutrality Lite, if you will.