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The Great Telecom Debate: (Re)Defining the Internet for the 21st Century

The Internet is at a legislative crossroads. The last major telecom legislation passed by the U.S. Congress was the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Its stated goal was to let communications businesses compete in any market against each other.

Since that time, though, the explosive growth and paradigm-shifting nature of the Internet have fundamentally altered the communications landscape. Today, the lines between cable operators and telephone companies are blurring, and a host of Internet-based communications services are quickly gaining mainstream adoption.

As a result, Congress has begun discussions on what will likely generate a complete overhaul of laws that concern communications services. This debate will have a profound effect on the future of the Internet as it will create the environment in which network operators and online service providers will coexist for the foreseeable future.

"This debate is foundational," says Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a national media reform organization dedicated to increasing public participation in the media policy debate. "We are at a moment of paradigm shift in my opinion, just as we were in the early ’80s when regulations were set up to roll out cable TV, or 50 years ago when broadcast radio was first being deployed. In the future when we look back on this time, we’ll see that the mid-2000s was when the government created the Internet as we see it today. Either we’ll say it’s been the same, or the mid-2000s will mark a giant shift in the way the Internet operates."

At the core of the great telecom debate is the tension that exists between the concepts of network prioritization vs. discrimination. Network operators want to have the ability to prioritize traffic on their networks, both so that they’re able to offer a robust TV package and so that they can sell prioritized access to online service providers, essentially creating a two-tiered Internet. On the other side of the coin, many online service providers and industry observers fear that network prioritization is one step down a slippery slope towards network discrimination, where network operators squeeze out the traffic of services delivered over the public Internet in favor of those services that run over their private networks.

The great telecom debate encompasses a broad range of topics, from encouraging the buildout of next-generation networks capable of multi-megabit and even HD video to determining the rights of network operators to establish preferential tiers of service across their networks. This article takes a look into the forces that have sparked the great telecom debate on Capitol Hill, an analysis of the arguments for and against a two-tiered Internet, and a look ahead to see what 2006 may have in store as the battle plays out.

An Outdated Schema
The driving force behind this debate is the widespread agreement that current telecom legislation is horribly outdated and does not reflect the sweeping changes that technology has brought about in communications. "BellSouth still has to operate within a framework of regulations that has its roots back in the 19th century," says Gregg Morton, BellSouth’s VP of federal affairs. "There’s still an awful lot of legacy legislation that we have to deal with that really no longer makes sense in today’s world, and we think that extra regulatory overhang that’s out there equates to higher costs for our consumers. It also makes it more difficult for us to compete in a very highly competitive environment where our competitors don’t have those same regulatory hurdles."

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