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AT&T Changing Tune On Net Neutrality?

At the center of president-elect Barack Obama's technology agenda is net neutrality and access to broadband in underserved areas. And on net neutrality, it has been pretty clear where folks in the telecom industry stood.

Republican lawmakers and regulators at the FCC have called it a solution looking for a problem. Telecom giants Verizon, AT&T and cable provider Comcast have rejected a push by public interest groups to legislate or create new rules that would ban them from slowing, blocking or degrading traffic on their networks.

But on a panel I moderated yesterday at a conference hosted by The University of Nebraska's law program, AT&T's chief lobbyist Jim Cicconi and public interest group Free Press were in surprising agreement on net neutrality as it applies to the wireless industry.

Ben Scott, the policy director of public interest group Free Press, said on the panel that broadband principles need to clearly include wireless service providers, particularly as technology innovation moves to mobile devices.

"There have to be clear uniform standards across all technologies," he said.

Cicconi concurred: "The same principals should apply across the board. As people migrate to the use of wireless devices to access the Internet, they . . . certainly expect that we treat these services the same way."

But before one thinks AT&T is pushing for new rules at the FCC for broadband operators or the adoption of bills on net neutrality on the Hill, Cicconi said rules in place at the FCC are working just fine, thank you. If it ain't broke, don't fix it seemed to be the upshot.

He said the FCC shouldn't revise its broadband principles and that the agency should deal with network discrimination practices on a "case by case basis."

Others have called for clarification of those rules. Richard Wiley, a partner at law firm Wiley Rein, said on the same panel that such changes could include an additional principle to the FCC's guidelines on broadband management that would ban network operators like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from discriminating against particular technologies on their network. Comcast was punished last summer by the FCC for deliberately slowing the transfer of video files with software application BitTorrent, an order that the cable operator has taken to court for appeal.

In a separate panel, an aide to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said the lawmaker will introduce a new bill in January on net neutrality. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Internet, earlier this year introduced a bill that would prevent companies like AT&T from locking Apple's iPhone to its network through exclusive contracts.

But observers said the most immediate reforms would likely take place at the FCC through revisions to its statement of broadband principles written in 2005.

"It is possible that most effective means is legislation, but I think we need to be realistic and know that Congress has a lot on its plate today ..... with the economic conditions we have," Wiley said.

By Cecilia Kang  |  November 14, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Cecilia Kang
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