The Senate Commerce Committee is expected to hold key votes next week on whether to require broadband-access providers, including cable and phone companies, to adhere to strict nondiscrimination rules in connection with their treatment of unaffiliated voice, video and information services offered over the Internet.
Cable and phone companies want to defeat so-called network-neutrality mandates favored by a coalition that includes Amazon.com, eBay, Google, InterActiveCorp, Microsoft and Yahoo!, as well as an array of public-interest and grassroots organizations.
Net-neutrality proponents fear that Web-based firms will be forced to pay in order to avoid interference from companies that control high-speed-data links to millions of homes.
“I firmly believe we’ve done what we need to do about net neutrality in this bill,” Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said Thursday. Stevens is opposed to handing the Federal Communications Commission a mandate to police the Internet market with a web of regulations.
The Senate began voting on amendments Thursday afternoon but broke after about two hours for a series of floor votes. With potentially hundreds of amendments to consider and with lawmakers unlikely to be present Friday or Monday, Stevens postponed further committee action until Tuesday, June 27.
Under the Stevens bill, phone companies would be allow to enter cable markets within 90 days under a streamlined franchising process created by the FCC and carried out by state and local franchising authorities.
Sweeping in its terms, the Stevens bill would rewrite major provisions of telecommunications law as interpreted by the FCC and federal courts. Provisions address rural phone subsidies; digital-video and audio broadcast content protections; municipal provision of advanced telecommunications; and cable- and satellite-TV carriage of digital-TV signals.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) argued that the bill had grown far beyond what he thought it was supposed to be about: reforming cable franchising.
“I have serious reservations about how broad this bill has become,” Nelson said, adding that a comprehensive rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 “is not what I thought we were trying to do.”
Stevens defended the bill as an attempt to end the balkanization of communications policy.
“This is a new communications bill. It’s trying to level the field between telecommunications, communications, information service and data services -- all these segregated things out there,” Stevens said.
On Tuesday, the panel is expected to debate a net-neutrality amendment that would, among other things, punish broadband-access providers that blocked or degraded unaffiliated Web-based services or prioritized affiliated services but refused to do the same for third-party services without charge.
Stevens' bill would allow the FCC to study the Internet market, alert Congress to any problems, but not write any regulations. He also would establish a consumer-centric Internet bill of rights that the FCC, after receiving a complaint, could enforce through fines and injunctions.
But that’s about as far as Stevens can go on net neutrality without losing the support of committee Republicans. Stevens is resisting net-neutrality mandates because he did not believe that the problem has been properly defined.
“Until someone really defines it, why should we destroy a bill -- and we will if that net-neutrality provision goes in this bill, all this [Republican] side is going to vote against it,” Stevens said.
Stevens indicated that he would not need to yield any more ground.
“I think we’ve got the votes to get the bill out of committee. The question is whether we have 60 votes," he said.
In the Senate, controversial legislation is effectively dead unless there are 60 votes to quell a filibuster.