The moment of truth for network neutrality may arrive today in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert told reporters yesterday he has scheduled a full floor vote Thursday on the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006 (COPE), a telecom reform bill that includes both national video franchising and network neutrality.
Under COPE, issues of network neutrality would be handled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on a case-by-case basis. And network neutrality violations would be based on the principles established by the FCC last August.
"I expect it to sail through the House," Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), author of the bill and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, predicted.
Critics, including most technology companies and a number of consumers groups, hope the bill will be amended on the floor to add statutory language prohibiting broadband carriers from discriminating against content, service and application providers through different pricing levels based on bandwidth consumption.
The decision on any possible amendments will be thrashed out in a meeting of the House Rules Committee Wednesday afternoon.
Network neutrality proponents are supporting amendments by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
Under Sensenbrenner's amendment, broadband network operators such as AT&T and Verizon would be barred from charging extra fees to run content at the same speed and quality of the network owner's own content.
Markey's measure would prohibit broadband providers from charging content and service providers different rates based on bandwidth consumption.
"One, but not both, may make it to the floor," Hastert said.
Sensenbrenner's amendment passed in the form of a bill last month on 20-13 vote in the House Judiciary Committee.
Six Republicans joined 14 Democrats to ensure passage of the bill. Thirteen Republicans opposed the legislation.
Markey attempted to amend COPE when it came up for a House Energy and Commerce vote in April. The amendment failed on a 34-22 vote. Five Democrats voted against the amendment.
"Mr. Markey miserably failed to get his amendment passed," Barton said. "I'm not inclined to give people another bite of the apple."
Barton also hinted that the vote might be delayed until Friday.
As for fellow Republican Sensenbrenner's amendment, Barton noted, "Mr. Sensenbrenner didn't even have support within his own majority."
Whatever the House passes, the issue of network neutrality will continue to roil Washington. The Senate has yet to pass a telecom reform bill out of a committee.
Under legislation being pushed by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska, network neutrality would be given to the FCC for further study.
Supporters of network neutrality hope language similar to Sensenbrenner's and Markey's bills will be included in the Senate version of telecom reform.
Differences between the House bill and the Senate bill would then have to be worked out in a conference committee.
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