Wyden Threatens Hold on Telecom Bill


As the Senate prepares to take up video franchise/telecom reform in the Commerce Committee Tuesday, Senator Ron Wyden (R-Ore.) has threatened to put a hold on the bill if it is not strong enough on network neutrality.

Wyden, who has co-sponsored an amendment strengthening network neutrality language, told home state newspaper, The Oregonian, that "I will do anything I can to block a major telecom rewrite that undermines what makes the Internet special. I will block it. I will do anything I can to derail it," including a hold.

A hold is the custom of delaying a floor vote at the request of even one Senator. But it is a custom, not a rule, so the Senate leadership is not bound by rule to honor it. But if it does, that could jeopardize passage in this session, though the legislators could come back, and likely will, for a lame duck period after the fall elections.

For example, a Senate hold on the nomination of FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell held up his confirmation for months.

Network neutrality has become the key bone of contention in the video franchise reform bill, the subject of intense lobbying on all sides. Still, the House passed its version of franchise reform without tough language on net neutrality, and did so with the votes of a number of a quarter of House Democrats as well as virtually all the Republicans.

Stretching back to the FCC's decision--and the Supreme Court's support in the Brand X decision--to reclassify cable and telephone service as information services not subject to independent Internet service provider mandatory access requirements, computer companies and media reform activists have lobbied for congressional action to restore that access requirement, most recently in seeking strong network neutrality language.

The House franchise reform bill, which has already passed, essentially codified FCC guidelines on nondiscrimination in the provision Internet access services, i.e. no blocking of sites or software or hardware, but does not give the FCC authority to write specific rules proscribing individual practices. The Senate version takes a consumer-focused approach to giving the FCC power to punish violators of those principles, but also does not give it rulemaking authority, which the Wyden-backed network neutrality amendment would.

A key is how much control networks will have over pricing and service. Telcos and cable argue they need flexibility to get a return on their investments in network buildouts, else they will not be able to expand braodband service, which is one of the key reasons telecom law is being revised in the first place. Their opponents say they will create an Internet toll road, with the price of security and bandwidth discouraging the kind of garage innovators that built Google and Yahoo!, not surprisingly two of the companies lobbying hard fo network neutrality.