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FCC commissioners hear testimony on net neutrality in Sacramento

For months, the issue of “net neutrality” has been debated in the halls of Washington, D.C., but on Wednesday, the issue came home to Sacramento at a state Capitol forum hosted by Rep. Doris Matsui.

The Sacramento Democrat, along with two Federal Communications Commission members, heard planned testimony from local and state leaders, who spoke in favor of so-called net neutrality and against proposals to create paid high-speed traffic lanes on the Internet. Some said it would harm Silicon Valley’s culture of innovation, while others, like the Sacramento Public Library’s director, said it would hurt everyday consumers.

In simplest terms, net neutrality is the idea that all access to the Internet is equal. It’s become a hotly debated topic in recent months after FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called for a “pay-for-play” model that would allow Internet providers to charge companies to move their content at faster speeds. Under Wheeler’s model, companies like Google, Netflix and Microsoft could pay extra, for instance, to have AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and other providers push their content along at higher speeds.

Consumer advocates argue the change would limit choices and could result in higher prices for Internet services.

In January, when the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet rules were struck down by a federal court, proponents of net neutrality found themselves scrambling for a new solution. At the Sacramento forum, Matsui emphasized that all Internet data must be treated equally, warning that a tiered system would “dramatically reshuffle the digital deck.” She has introduced legislation with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that would ban a pay-for-play Internet model.

“Consumer choice will be at the mercy of the highest bidder,” Matsui told a packed hearing room of 70 people.

Rivkah Sass, director of the Sacramento Public Library, in her testimony warned that “libraries will face higher surcharges” without rules that guarantee equal access.

“Open Internet is not a privilege for the affluent. It is the right of each and every one of us,” Sass said.

Some net neutrality advocates have asked the FCC to reclassify broadband service as a public utility, which would give the agency broad powers for regulation.

But groups like Tech Freedom, a Washington, D.C., think tank, contend that change could open up more problems, including unwanted price controls and potentially years of litigation.

“The question is: Do you subject the Internet to the old rules developed for the monopoly telephone network?” said Berin Szoka, president of Tech Freedom, which is funded by telecom and Internet companies alike.

Whatever the outcome, the stakes are high. Broadband companies stand to generate millions from potential fees that they could charge to companies like Netflix to deliver faster movie streams or to Microsoft for clearer calls on the company’s Skype network.

During a recent call for public comments, a record 3.7 million public comments were filed with the FCC. That beat the previous record of 1.4 million public comments registered following the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

The FCC is expected to vote on the proposed new Internet rules by December. The two FCC commissioners who were present Wednesday, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, are considered to be the most sympathetic of the five-member commission toward implementing strict net neutrality rules.

“I believe the FCC must find a way to put Open Internet policies back in place,” Rosenworcel said. “We cannot have a two-tiered Internet.”

Chris Kelly, a former chief privacy officer at Facebook and a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings, noted that “pay for play” could leave behind the startups that have made Silicon Valley and California great.

Calling it an “innovation tax,” Kelly noted that Facebook would have been unlikely to grow from its college-campus roots at Harvard, if it had been forced to negotiate with telecom providers for preferential delivery services.

Szoka of Tech Freedom noted that not all pay models are bad for consumers. He cited telemedicine as an industry that would benefit from a paid model, which could guarantee fast speeds and consistent connections for high-resolution imaging, in order to help doctors diagnose patients remotely.

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