Senator Stevens Offers Compromise on Net Neutrality

By Jeremy Pelofsky

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens has offered a compromise in the fierce fight over legislation on Internet network neutrality, but stopped short of demands sought by content companies like Google Inc.

Google, Microsoft Corp. and other Internet companies have lobbied hard for Congress to bar broadband Internet service providers such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. from charging them to guarantee access and service quality, often called network neutrality.

AT&T and Comcast, two of the largest high-speed broadband Internet providers, have opposed any obligations imposed on their services or restricting their business operations.

Stevens has added a new section to his proposed bill aimed at preserving consumers' ability to surf anywhere on the public Internet and use any Web-based application, according to the latest draft obtained by Reuters this weekend.

However, the draft by the Alaska Republican does not include a ban on pricing content companies have demanded.

Earlier versions of the bill only called for the Federal Communications Commission to report on Internet access, prompting Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye (news, bio, voting record), the top Democrat on the committee, and some others to call for more protections.

Striking a compromise would likely make it easier for the bill to pass this year. AT&T and Verizon Communications want it to pass quickly because it would also make it easier for them to get licenses to offer cable television service.

The Senate committee is scheduled to consider amendments and vote on the measure at a meeting on Thursday. Spokesmen for Stevens and Inouye were not immediately available for comment.

Stevens' compromise would also create a complaint process through the FCC if consumers believe their access rights were violated and the agency would be authorized to adjudicate complaints with penalties, according to the draft.

However, the FCC would be barred from issuing any regulations under the new law that would add to the obligations on Internet service providers.

The compromise is somewhat similar to legislation that passed the House of Representatives. However, there are other differences between the House and Senate that would have to be resolved.

Broadband providers argue that they would not block any public Internet site or application but may want to offer private Internet-based services like for customers to download movies.

But content companies worry that will squeeze public Internet traffic into a narrower, slower lane.

Another new provision in the bill would require Internet providers to offer stand-alone service without forcing subscribers to sign up for other products, like voice or video services. Some companies already do so but charge more.

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.

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