WASHINGTON -- A Senate committee yesterday approved a wide-ranging telecommunications bill designed to increase high-speed Internet access, but the legislation's future is in jeopardy because of a bitter dispute over rules to assure data will continue to flow freely.
The stalemate over allowing phone and cable companies to charge Web sites for faster delivery of video and other data-heavy applications was clear when the Senate Commerce Committee deadlocked on a plan to prohibit those so-called Internet toll-lanes.
The 11-11 vote killed the proposal, but the issue, known as "net neutrality," drew enough support to threaten passage of the first major telecommunications legislation in a decade.
The bill would eliminate most state and local regulations covering cable TV and cell phone service in hopes of spurring competition to expand the fiber and wireless networks to deliver it. The centerpiece is a plan to make it easier for phone companies to offer TV service by letting them get national franchises rather than seeking the approval of each community they want to serve.
Supporters hope the lure of packaging voice, video and data will lead phone companies to spend more on their networks and force cable TV providers to do the same. California is considering joining several states in offering statewide TV franchises for the same purpose. The federal legislation would override those efforts.
Some phone company executives have said they want to pay for their new wires by charging premiums for higher speed service. Fearing they'll be relegated to the Internet's slow lane if they don't pay up, Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and other major Internet companies - joined by many online activist groups - have pushed Congress to prohibit preferential treatment of data.
"This is about who's going to control the Internet of the future," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican and leading supporter of requiring equal treatment for all data. "Broadband operators will be able to pick winners and losers."
All of the committee's 10 Democrats supported her plan yesterday to add rules prohibiting discriminatory treatment of data by network providers. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California warned that the proposal's failure would lead to a "massive fight" - and Democrats may have the numbers to block the bill from reaching the full Senate.
The overall bill passed the committee 15-7.
Republican supporters warned that including the anti-discriminatory rules would doom the bill as well. The House handily defeated a similar proposal, 269-152, earlier this month when it passed its own telecommunications bill.
"This is absolutely a poison pill the House will not accept," said Sen. John Ensign of Nevada. He and other Republicans argued new regulations would stifle the expansion of the Internet.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, vowed to try to revise the bill to try to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a likely Democratic filibuster. But he admitted he does not have those votes yet and that the earliest the bill could be considered would be September, when lawmakers will be anxious to avoid controversial issues so they can go home to campaign for re-election.
Stevens pleaded with his colleagues yesterday that the bill must be passed this year to help the United States raise its lowly ranking in worldwide high-speed Internet penetration and make other important telecommunications reforms.
Stevens created a much broader bill than the House, betting a slew of additional provisions important to various senators would draw enough support to pass it. Among them: New anti-piracy measures on digital TV and radio signals known as "broadcast flags"; a three-year moratorium on new cell phone taxes; a permanent extension of the current moratorium on Internet access taxes; $1 billion to help firefighters and other emergency personnel communicate better; and expansion of the Universal Service Fund, which helps extend telecommunications services to rural and low-income areas.
During about 12 hours of meetings spanning three days, the committee rejected several other proposals, including one to offer the new national TV franchises only to cable operators who allow consumers to purchase channels individually. Still, the more expansive Senate bill may be a problem for House leaders, who largely limited their bill to the cable TV provisions.
Jim Puzzanghera writes for the Los Angeles Times.