Comcast on Net Neutrality: Cool Off

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Washington -- The political battle over network neutrality deserves a “cooling-off period” to give federal regulators time to study business relationships between cable broadband-access providers and Web-based content and communications providers, a senior Comcast Corp. official said Wednesday.

Comcast external affairs vice president Joe Waz said that before Congress takes any steps to regulate broadband-access providers in ways it might regret, the Federal Communications Commission should be given time to collect and analyze market developments in an effort to allow facts to triumph over fiction.

“I propose that we start with a cooling-off period,” Waz said at a communications forum here sponsored by Pike & Fischer Inc.

A House bill (H.R. 5252) would allow the FCC to fine cable companies up to $500,000 per offense for violating the agency’s network-neutrality principles. While cable is troubled by the bill, network-neutrality proponents consider it weak and want more regulatory power given to the FCC.

Senate legislation (S. 2686) sponsored by Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) would offer a different approach. It would require the FCC to monitor the market, file annual reports and make recommendations to address problems it had uncovered.

“Rather than shoot first and ask questions later, Sen. Stevens wants to get the facts,” Waz said.

Net-neutrality proponents want to ban broadband-access providers from blocking or degrading Web-based content and communications services and from demanding fees to prioritize traffic and ensure the reliable delivery of Web services to end-users.

The cable and phone industries, backed by some Wall Street analysts, argued that such an approach -- especially if predicated on no evidence of market abuse -- would choke off network investment. Stevens, according to one of his senior aides, has the same concern, which explains the approach he took in the bill.

“His new bill would direct the FCC to track what happens in the marketplace -- see what’s really going on in the Internet service, technologies and business arrangements, and whether consumers are being served,” Waz said.

Comcast and other cable companies have urged caution because decisions to allow network owners to operate in a deregulated market have produced enormous consumer benefits. Waz noted that cable critics for years have inaccurately predicted that only regulation -- such rules allowing third-party Internet-service providers to buy cable bandwidth wholesale -- can safeguard competition.

“To push their agenda, the proponents of network neutrality have constructed a parade of horribles. But this parade marches right down the boulevard of the hypothetical,” Waz said.

Even the term “network neutrality” is misleading, he added, because many business relationships on the Web can’t be called neutral in their design or effect.

“Google [Inc.] has complained that [Microsoft Corp.’s] Internet Explorer browser defaults to MSN Search. Google and Yahoo! [Inc.] give prominence to paid search results over other search results,” Waz said. “Not one of these practices is neutral.”

Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! are members of the Washington, D.C., coalition that advocates passage of a network-neutrality law.