The Bell companies promised members of the Senate Commerce Committee that they have no plans to block Internet services.
Lawmakers are considering legislation to guarantee consumers open access to the Internet — a notion those in the industry refer to as "net neutrality."
AT&T Inc. and BellSouth Corp. (BLS) in particular have suggested charging Internet services such as Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. (YHOO) and Vonage Holdings Corp. for the high-quality delivery of their content over the phone companies' networks.
The phone companies say they're investing billions of dollars upgrading their broadband networks and should be able to recoup that cost.
"The promise of the next-generation Internet is dependent upon there being investment in next-generation networks," said Walter McCormick, president and chief executive of the United States Telecom Association, a trade association for the Bells and others. "If you're going to expand these networks, how are you going to earn a return on that investment?"
Critics worry the Bells could discriminate against certain Internet companies and limit what consumers see when they go online.
For example, they say, a tiered service would allow Verizon and AT&T to give priority to Yahoo's search engine over Google's — leaving consumers with long wait times to access Google services. Smaller companies could be run out of business, they argue.
"Promoting an open and accessible Internet is critical for consumers," Google Vice President Vinton Cerf — a man widely regarded as one of the fathers of the Internet — said in his testimony.
Cerf and Vonage Chairman Jeffrey Citron advocated legislation that keep phone or cable companies from blocking access or discriminating against certain Internet companies.
The main trade associations for the phone and cable companies argued against legislation, saying it's not needed because they have no intention of impeding access to the Internet.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said consumers already pay broadband providers for access to the Internet and questioned the need for additional charges.
"It is not a free lunch for any one of these content providers," Dorgan said. "Those lines and that access is being paid for by the consumer."
Republicans urged an approach that also recognizes the money being spent by broadband providers to upgrade their facilities to offer more services at faster speeds.
"You do deserve a return on your investment," Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said. "If we can't give them a return on their investment, Wall Street is not going to loan them the money to do this."