Cable lobby argues California lawmakers should bless Internet slow lanes

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cable operators want to sell Internet fast lanes to those who are are willing to pay, thereby consigning those who don’t to the slow lane. That was the clear message from Carolyn McIntyre, the president of the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, which is the main lobbying front for Comcast, Charter and most other cable operators in the state. She spoke out against senate bill 460 – a network neutrality revival bill introduced by senator Kevin de Leon (D – Los Angeles) – during a senate judiciary committee hearing yesterday.

It seems telcos want that option too. AT&T published an ad in major papers yesterday supporting net neutrality, of a sort. Its definition conspicuously omitted mention of fast lanes, or paid prioritisation as the practice is called.

It was a climb down for McIntyre, who incorrectly told senators that cable companies have promised not to engage in paid prioritisation during an earlier hearing. This time, she told the committee that the Federal Communications Commission allows paid prioritisation, so California should too…

Although the FCC questions the use of paid prioritisation, they do not ban the practice. SB 460 does. The FCC provides an ISP some flexibility to manage its network and authorises paid prioritisation that benefits the public interest. SB 460 does not.

McIntyre pushed a couple of sacred cows – education and public safety – into the road, apparently hoping to instil fear that they would be run down by SB 460. The judiciary committee analysis suggested a public interest exception that would allow paid prioritisation under particular but still undefined circumstances. That led the discussion back around to how the law would be enforced: who decides what is in the public interest and what is not?

The near-universal opposition to giving the job to the California Public Utilities Commission led to the current version of the bill, de Leon told the committee. The chair, senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D – Santa Barbara), repeatedly asked the long line of opponents – from cable, and wired and mobile telephone companies – to suggest a different state level agency, in order to centralise enforcement and avoid having 58 county district attorneys and a horde of contingency fee-intoxicated trial lawyers decide what net neutrality means.

No one stepped up.

Concerns about who implements a Californian net neutrality law and the likelihood that it would be tossed out by federal courts were batted around by committee members. Jackson stated the clear reality faced by any solution that might be offered.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is going to be litigated”, she said. “It’s probably going to be expensive, and keep a lot of lawyers busy and happy no matter what we do on this”.

The judiciary committee voted 5 to 2 along party lines to endorse SB 460 and send it on to a vote by the full senate. The deadline is next Wednesday.