Thursday, December 28, 2006

AT&T Yields to Neutrality, Congress is Next

In a striking victory for Internet freedom advocates, AT&T officials agreed on Thursday night to adhere to strict Network Neutrality conditions if allowed to complete their proposed $85 billion merger with BellSouth.

Ed Does Net Neutrality

Neutralized for now:
AT&T Chief Ed Whitacre

The phone company filed a "letter of commitment" with the Federal Communications Commission in which it promises to observe Net Neutrality principles for at least 24 months. Now it's left to Congress to follow the FCC's lead and make Net Neutrality permanent under the law.

According to AT&T's letter, the merged company:
"… commits that it will maintain a neutral network and neutral routing in its wireline broadband Internet access service. This commitment shall be satisfied by AT&T/BellSouth's agreement not to provide or to sell to Internet content, application, or service providers, including those affiliated with AT&T/BellSouth, any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes any packet transmitted over AT&T/BellSouth's wireline broadband Internet access service based on its source, ownership or destination."

AT&T's concession followed more than a week of often pointed negotiations with the two Democrats on the commission, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. This was compounded by tens of thousands of letters from and Free Press activists who demanded that the FCC allow no merger without Net Neutrality.

Approval of the merger by the full commission could come as early as Friday, according to the Associated Press.

AT&T's agreement puts to rest their own executives' argument that Net Neutrality doesn't really exist. (Watch AT&T chief Ed Whitacre in action) The phone giant just committed to observing Net Neutrality and defined it in the text of its letter.

It also puts to rest the bogus argument that Net Neutrality will cripple the largest phone companies' plans to build out broadband services. AT&T agreed to this condition -- and also to offer cheaper broadband services – and yet they continue to expand their networks and offer services to the tune of $24.5 billion in gross annual profits in 2006.

AT&T's agreement to these merger terms reduces to industry spin their argument that Net Neutrality and profit are mutually exclusive.

Now It's Up To Congress

Now that the FCC and AT&T have agreed that Net Neutrality is right for the future of the Internet, it's time for Congress to forge legislation that instills this guiding principle into law.

As Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott recently said, "We are no longer having a debate about whether Net Neutrality should be the law of the land; we are having a debate about how and when."

With the help of FCC Commissioners Adelstein and Copps -- who held out for Net Neutrality against intense pressure from Chairman Kevin Martin and AT&T lobbyists -- we have won more than a temporary condition on a mega-merger. They have set the bar for the future of the Internet, and paved our path to success on Capitol Hill.

"Making Net Neutrality a condition of the largest merger in telecommunications history sets an important precedent," Scott said on Thursday. "It's now up to the new Congress to craft a forward-looking broadband policy that will bring the benefits of the Internet to all Americans. For free speech, democratic participation and economic innovation to thrive online, Net Neutrality must be the law."

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