House Vote Is Mixed on Internet

Times Staff Writer

The House approved legislation late Thursday that would make it easier for phone companies to offer cable TV service, betting that increased competition would drive down prices and spur more high-speed Internet service.

But it rejected a provision backed by large Internet companies that would have prevented phone and cable companies from selling preferential treatment on their networks for delivery of video and other data-heavy applications.

That issue, known as network neutrality, was the focus of intense lobbying on Capitol Hill in recent days and threatens the bill’s future as the debate moves to the Senate.


The Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act, the first major telecommunications legislation in a decade, passed the House by a wide margin.

The bill allows phone companies to obtain national franchises to offer TV service instead of having to seek approval from each community they’d like to serve, as cable companies now must do.

Supporters said the bill would encourage the construction of more high-speed Internet lines because phone and cable companies want to lure customers by bundling voice and video with data service.

“The United States doesn’t even rank in the top 10 of the nations of the world in broadband deployment,” said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), the main sponsor. “This bill should change that statistic.”

Herschel Abbott, BellSouth Corp. vice president of governmental affairs, said, “Completion of video franchise legislation will allow faster rollout of a video service that can provide another competitive alternative to cable.”

But many Democrats opposed the legislation.

They complained that the new national franchises meant that disputes about damage to roads and sidewalks by crews laying new lines would be handled by the Federal Communications Commission and not by local authorities.


Opponents also said the bill would allow phone and cable companies to cherry-pick customers in wealthy neighborhoods while eliminating the current requirement demanded by most local governments that cable TV companies serve low-income and minority areas as well.

But the biggest fight was over whether phone and cable companies should be able to charge content providers for faster delivery of their services over the Internet.

Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have led the push for regulations preventing phone and cable companies from developing what they called toll lanes on the Internet.

Neutrality advocates said they would continue pressing for new rules requiring equal access to the Internet. “Momentum to defend net neutrality will only grow as Americans realize that the threat to Internet freedom is real,” spokesman Robert W. McChesney said.

The Senate version of the legislation, proposed by Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), has weaker network neutrality provisions, and there is bipartisan support for changing them.

Stevens said this week that he was revising his legislation in hopes of gaining more support and was optimistic it would pass.