Boucher: Net neutrality stalls broadband measure

A telecommunications reform bill now in Congress would allow government to provide high-speed Internet access where no other services are available.

The debate over network neutrality could be resolved if the United States were to follow the lead of Japan, Korea and other countries in ensuring that high-speed Internet access is widely available to the general population, said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.).

The net neutrality debate threatens to sink a telecommunications reform bill that would make it easier for state and local governments to extend broadband services to rural areas, said Boucher, speaking Monday at the Commonwealth of Virginia Innovative Technology Symposium in Roanoke, Va.

But this need not be the case, he said.

The issue of net neutrality is really an issue of high-speed communications over "the last mile," Boucher said. Although high-speed fiber-optic networks crisscross many regions of the country, a lot of people still have slower links for accessing those backbone networks.

Telecommunications companies want the ability to create a two-tiered approach to network access. Content that the telecom firms and their business partners offer would go through high-speed service, while other Web sites would get low-speed routes.

Net neutrality advocates say this two-tiered approach would harm the democratic nature of the Internet. Internet users would get sponsored content faster, while sites not affiliated with a network provider would load more slowly.

But telecom firms argue that, given the limited bandwidth, such an approach is a business necessity.

That would not be case if the United States were to address the last-mile gap in connectivity, Boucher said. If homes everywhere had 75 or 100 megabits/sec access, telecom firms would not need to take that approach, he said.

Indeed, a provision in a telecommunications reform bill now in Congress would provide one way to fix that problem. The bill, which would update the Telecommunications Act of 1996, includes an amendment that would make it legal for government to provide broadband communications in regions where private firms offer no such services.

"There are parts of the U.S. that do not have broadband service at all," because it is not economically feasible for commercial providers, Boucher said. "I think we have a clear role for government to play in terms of filling that gap."

The House passed the bill, and the Senate passed it out of committee, but it does not appear to have the votes needed to pass the full Senate, Boucher said. It could be passed after the elections in November, but that is not certain, largely because of the net neutrality debate, he said.

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