House passes broadband bill despite promise of White House veto

Congress continues to do America proud

The House of Representatives has passed a bill that it claims will prevent federal regulators from setting broadband prices, but critics say it's little more than an effort to undermine net neutrality regulations.

During a sometimes heated discussion in Congress on Friday, representatives voted 241-173 to pass HR 2666 – the No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act – despite the White House having gone to the unusual step of explicitly stating it will veto the bill if it gets to President Obama's desk.

As the title of the bill suggests, the Republican-led legislation is aimed at writing into law a restriction on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set the rate that companies can charge for internet access.

That effort immediately aroused suspicion in Democrats, net neutrality activists, the FCC and the White House due to the fact that there has been no proposal for the FCC to set rates and its chair, Tom Wheeler, has explicitly ruled out ever doing so.

A closer look at the wording of the bill and a subsequent amended version, however, revealed that it included much broader wording than was necessary. The wording, critics say, amounts to little more than an effort to undermine net neutrality rules by limiting the FCC's ability to act or review anything to do with pricing.

As well as the White House's toughly worded statement that it was "strongly opposed" to the bill, as it would restrict the FCC's ability to act in consumers' best interests, a number of protest letters were also sent to Congress; one [PDF] arguing that it would make it "impossible for the FCC to review and then prohibit even clearly anti-competitive and anti-consumer actions by broadband companies."

An extensive critique of the bill by Harold Feld of Public Knowledge said that the legislation "basically removes the authority of the FCC to take action on any complaints relating to overcharges, fees or other nasty practices that broadband providers may do to overcharge you."

We watch channel zero

It would also make the FCC powerless to act in the increasingly important policy question of "zero rating" – where companies provide certain services for free but it may act as a barrier to others. Recently, Facebook's Free Basics service has been banned in several countries for its zero rating impact.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the broadband operators are in favor of the bill, sending their own letter [PDF] to Congress in which they argue the legislation would "alleviate the threat that the Federal Communications Commission will limit provider pricing flexibility or otherwise dictate the terms and conditions of our members' service offerings."

The bill's passing sparked another rash of quick commentary from both sides.

Republican commissioner at the FCC, Ajit Pai, put out a statement saying that it was "commonsense legislation to stop the Federal Communications Commission from regulating broadband Internet access rates."

Meanwhile the Executive Director of Engine – one of many internet companies opposed to the bill – Evan Engstrom said that its passing was "another disappointing reminder that many leaders in Washington still do not understand how important strong, enforceable net neutrality rules are for the continued vitality of the startup ecosystem."

The fight represents just the latest in a running battle between net neutrality advocates and the powerful telco lobby, which have predictably fallen along partisan lines. The bill will now pass to the Senate.

Meanwhile, both sides are waiting on a first ruling from a Washington DC court of the legal challenge to the FCC's Open Internet Order by the telecom industry. ®

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