U.S. senators are getting ready to delve into the slippery subject of network neutrality, which most people are in favor of — as long as they can define it on their own terms.

The principle of net neutrality generally holds that network owners should remain neutral with respect to the content they carry.

The three largest network operators — all regional Bell operating companies — have voiced support for the principle, while their top executives have suggested over recent months that large content providers should pay a premium for priority use of the networks.

The suggestions have come from BellSouth, AT&T (known as SBC Communications until SBC merged with AT&T last year) and Verizon Communications, which recently bought MCI.

The notion of a priority content delivery system, in which service quality levels are guaranteed only at a price, is sounding alarm bells for user rights activists and free speech advocates.

Charging that a multitiered Internet would force users to pay twice for online content and that access to some sites could end up being impaired, the Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America and Free Press are calling on Congress to enact net neutrality legislation.

The Bell companies insist that nobody is talking about impairing Internet content.

"We have had a [content delivery] agreement with Yahoo for three to four years now," said Michael Balmoris, a spokesperson for AT&T in Washington, D.C. "Just because we have an arrangement with Yahoo doesn't mean the consumer will be somehow inhibited from reaching other Web sites and content on the Internet."

AT&T has a similar agreement with Movielink to ensure high-quality video delivery, and such arrangements would make sense for online gaming or any other broadband-intensive application provider, Balmoris said.

While actual content blocking may not be looming, critics argue that a multitiered Internet could mean untenable access to Web sites that refuse to pay for guaranteed service levels.

"I think the more appropriate word is choking," said Lee Selwyn, president of Economics and Technology in Boston. "If you don't pay them, they're in a position to not allow the content to be delivered at high speeds."

So far, Bell officials are framing the notion of priority delivery as applying to companies that provide online content as a core business, arguing that high-bandwidth users should help pay to upgrade the networks that enable their profits.

"Content providers make money by taking advantage of the broadband that is available," Balmoris said. "They need a modern, healthy network to provide services just as much as we need them."

With widespread broadband deployment and increasing capacity available, critics question the need for prioritization and the need for the Bells to seek additional revenues to upgrade their networks.

"The suggestion that these companies aren't paying for their use of the Internet is not true. When Amazon.com or ABC News.com signs up, they are buying very large bandwidth pipes," Selwyn said. "The only time you have to prioritize is if you're in a condition of scarcity. We have the technology to have all the fiber optic capacity that you could possibly want and then some."

Representatives of large enterprises say that if the concept of priority content delivery takes root, it could have an impact not only on large content providers, but also on just about any business with a Web site.

"This is something the commercial sector generally should be concerned about. The net neutrality debate really is going to be about getting access to the eyeballs [of customers]," said James Blaszak, whose law firm, Levine, Blaszak, Block & Boothby, represents large enterprises users on telecom issues. "If I pay for the loop that gets me access to the network, why is it that someone who wants to send me something should also pay?"

In addition to leading to rising prices for content providers and their customers, a multitiered delivery approach could also give the Bells leverage to press for revenue-sharing arrangements, Blaszak said.

"What if they say, to get to your customers for you to sell your wares, we want a share of your revenues?" said Blaszak, who added that he is not currently representing any companies on the net neutrality issue. "Once you buy into the notion that the telephone companies should be able to charge entities other than those that are buying access to the Internet, I don't know where you stop."

Congress will consider the question of net neutrality as it attempts to update telecommunications laws, last updated in 1996.

Two of several telecom reform bills that have been introduced include net neutrality principles, but neither would prevent the kind of commercial arrangements the Bells have outlined. The debate kicks off Feb. 7 in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

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