AUGUSTA, Maine — Right now, Internet users get access to any website on an equal basis. But, discussions by major Internet companies with the Federal Communications Commission have raised the fear of a new Internet based on the ability to pay for access, and members of Maine’s congressional delegation say such a system would hurt Maine.
“I am very concerned about the direction the FCC is taking,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “It also seems to me that the chairman is exceeding his authority and that these issues are fundamental policy issues that should be decided by Congress.”
She said the concept that the Internet could have “multiple lanes” where large companies could get preferential treatment would mean small, rural states such as Maine would be at a disadvantage.
Last month, Google and Verizon, two giants in the Internet world, proposed that regulators enforce the open Internet principles often called Net neutrality on wired connections but not on the wireless services. That would mean that on some cell phones or other mobile devices or on some “special access lanes” carriers such as Verizon and U.S. Cellular could charge companies that provide content a “toll” for faster access to customers or, as some industry analysts worry, block some services from reaching customers altogether.
Second District Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said he also is concerned that rural areas of the country will be left behind as Internet providers cater to larger markets at the expense of smaller markets.
“I am adamantly opposed to the FCC, or any other regulatory agency, that might be moving forward and implementing through the rule process, something that could be detrimental to Maine,” he said.
Michaud said it is disturbing that the FCC is holding discussions with some of the big Internet companies. He shares Collins’ concern that the FCC may lack the authority to address the issue because of a recent court ruling.
That court ruling last April was the result of a lawsuit by Comcast, a cable company that also offers Internet access that asserted it had the right to slow its customers’ access to a file-sharing service called BitTorrent. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled the FCC lacks the necessary authority from Congress to regulate Internet service.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees the FCC, said Congress may have to act to bring the 1996 Telecommunications Act up to date and specifically spell out the authority of the FCC. She said there are a complicated set of issues with legitimate competing interests.
“Because of the rapid development of new technologies, voice and video and data, it has become critical to try and manage those networks,” she said, “but, at the same time, preserve the nondiscrimination principles and making sure there are reasonable practices in place that do not inhibit the ability of the average person to use the Internet as they are accustomed to do today.”
Snowe said there have been some hearings in both the House and Senate on the issues but legislation has not made it to the floor for consideration. She said she has long supported the concept of Net neutrality and will oppose any change in that fundamental principle as lawmakers seek “workable and practical” legislation.
First District Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she was a “strong supporter” of Net neutrality before she was elected to Congress. She said the FCC should not undercut the principle in its negotiations with Internet companies.
“I definitely think that Congress should mandate this,” she said, “I just think it is a fundamental principle. The Internet has become phenomenally important in how we do business, how we access information, how we educate ourselves.”
Pingree hopes the House will have a bill to deal with the issues this fall, even though she acknowledges there will be little time before the break in early October for the elections.
Last week FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the talks with Internet companies have been misunderstood. He vowed the fundamental open principles of the Internet would be continued.
“As we move forward, the FCC will continue to be vigilant in guarding against threats to Internet freedom,” he said in a statement. “We will be focused on a vision of a ubiquitous and super-fast Internet, with flourishing entrepreneurship and vibrant startups, and massive private investment in Internet infrastructure, content, and services — an Internet that is an engine for our economy, and provides a world of knowledge and free speech accessible to all.”
Snowe said the Senate might not get to the issues until after the elections, possibly not until the new Congress takes office in January.