Senate Holds Final Telecom Bill Hearing

WASHINGTON—Members of the U.S. Senate heard from the telecom industry and others in what was the final hearing on its version of a new telecom bill.

This is the only hearing since the U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar bill during the week of June 5. The Senate bill, called the “Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006,” aims to make changes to current laws in the area of Internet regulation, access to television programming and support for new services including new types of wireless access.

Because the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has already had two hearings on its version of the telecom bill, the hearing on June 13 mainly involved the House version of the bill, as well as a couple of hot topics that have been the subject of nearly constant television, radio and newspaper ads in Washington over the past month.

Those topics were “Net Neutrality” and access to television programming via cable, satellite or through the phone company.

Access to cable television and the Internet in small communities was a particular focus. “Companies are not making broadband available to small communities,” said Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

He said that the initial version of the Senate bill had a number of obstacles to communities that wanted broadband service, but that the current version, as well as the bill passed in the House, meant that communities could create their own broadband access.

“They have to give notice,” Lautenberg said, pointing out that communities also had to give private industry a chance to bid on a broadband access project. But in any case, a community could implement Wi-Fi based access to the Internet as a number of cities including Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco have already done.

Lautenberg also noted that the Senate wants to increase competition in access to television. He said that what the Senate shouldn’t do is allow companies to cherry pick consumers, and leave out the audience it doesn’t want.

“We must make sure that all users, not just the affluent, get access,” he said.

The question of “net neutrality” came up repeatedly in discussions, both from witnesses and from the members of the committee. However, it was clear from the discussions that there was little agreement on what that actually is.

For example, John Rutledge, a consultant to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that “net neutrality” means that everyone has access to the Internet, but that it’s acceptable for companies to charge more for better access.

Rutledge pointed out that people who want a faster delivery service have the same option. “It’s like FedEx or Express Mail versus regular mail,” he said.

He said that both will deliver a letter, but if you want to get it their faster, you can pay extra.

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