Commentary

While Dems Renew Push For Net Neutrality, ISPs Impose Bandwidth Caps

Now that the election is over, it seems certain that Democrats will renew their push for net neutrality laws.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, who previously introduced legislation, intends to unveil a new proposal in January, one of his aides said this week at a University of Nebraska conference.

But previous efforts to enshrine net neutrality principles in law haven't gotten very far in the past. Telcos and cable companies opposed new laws, as did Federal Communications Commission chair Kevin Martin, who argued that the agency already had all the authority it needed to enforce the concept.

Indeed, earlier this year, Martin joined with the FCC's two Democrats to sanction Comcast for violating neutrality principles by slowing down peer-to-peer traffic.

Now, other ISPs have seized on the order against Comcast to argue against new laws on the theory that the FCC has already proven it can enforce neutrality principles.

But there are some problems with that reasoning. One is that Comcast has appealed the FCC's ruling on the ground that the FCC exceeded its authority. Should a court side with Comcast on that point, that decision could mean that new laws are the only way to protect neutrality.

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Another problem is that the new commissioners on the FCC might not agree with this summer's 3-2 decision against Comcast.

But even if Congress acts to protect net neutrality, that doesn't mean that people will be able to consume all the content they wish online. That's because ISPs including AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner are now imposing bandwidth caps.

While the caps are neutral in that they don't discriminate between content, they could effectively deter people from using the Web as much as they otherwise would. For instance, Time Warner is testing monthly caps as low as 5 GBs, or enough to download two standard-def movies.

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