'Net Neutrality' Sought For Online Pricing

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A bill introduced in Congress seeks to ensure "Net neutrality" by preventing telecommunications operators and broadband providers from creating a tiered system of premium services, that could boost costs for financial service providers and other premium users of Internet services, as well as consumers.

The Network Neutrality Act, sponsored by Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, would also bar telecom companies and cable operators from favoring one provider's web traffic or their own content over another's by ensuring faster downloads to companies that pay higher fees.

Net neutrality has become a stealth issue on Capitol Hill, especially among financial services providers who worry that telecom companies could start charging higher fees for unlimited access to broadband, T-1 and other high-speed Internet services, like those required for online transactions.

A broad coalition of tech companies, including eBay, Google, Yahoo and Amazon.com, as well as advocacy groups and consumer organizations have expressed some of the concerns addressed by Markey in his bill, such as the possibility of a tiered system.

Financial services providers are slowly joining the fray, worried that their preferred delivery channel-the Internet-could become captive to controlling interests.

Other interests that have signed on to the fight include: LendingTree.com, AARP, Consumer Federation of America, Home Shopping Network, Match.com, Ticketmaster, and Travelocity.

But telecom companies that control the infrastructure of the Internet, like AT&T, Bell South and Verizon, maintain that legislation is unnecessary and would compromise the quality of service. They argue they should be able to charge higher fees to companies who want faster service, especially for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) or TV over Internet.

A coalition of financial companies is trying to bring the issue to the attention of the House Financial Services Committee and Senate Banking Committee to ensure that their interests are protected. The group wants to do three things: seek hearings before the banking committees to explore the potential impact of an end to Net neutrality on the financial services industry and its customers; join online companies that are already working to preserve Net neutrality, and lobby for legislation that would ensure Net neutrality for online financial services.

Credit union lobbyists say they are watching the issue closely.

The Markey bill is only the latest of numerous proposals to address this issue. None of the bills are expected to pass this year, but the issue is expected to emerge as a major battleground in the next Congress.

The Journal's Ed Roberts can be contacted at eroberts cuournal.com.

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