January 2, 2007, 12:00 AM

AT&T promise encourages proponents of network neutrality

By vowing not to impose a tiered system of wired broadband Internet content delivery service for the next two years, AT&T has increased hope among retailers for legislation designed to keep the Internet a level playing field for e-commerce companies.

By promising not to impose a tiered system of wired broadband Internet access for the next two years, AT&T; Inc. has increased hope among retail industry groups for federal legislation designed to keep the Internet a level playing field for e-commerce companies.

“This delays implementation of any system of discrimination in Internet access, and gives us a little breathing room while trying to make some headway in Congress,” says Bill McClellan, director of government affairs for the Electronic Retailing Association.

AT&T; promised in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission last week that it would not offer during the next two years any service that would grant any company an advantage in transmitting content over the Internet. Retailers and others have argued that such a premium service would compromise network neutrality by letting some companies buy Internet services that would let them deliver content at much faster speeds than would be available to their competitors.

Although legislation to mandate network neutrality has failed to pass through Congress, new legislation expected to be introduced this year is expected to fare better in committees controlled by Democrats known to favor net neutrality, McClellan says. Pushing through such legislation will be easier while AT&T; is abiding by its promise to abide by network neutrality principles, he adds.

David McClure, president and CEO of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, a trade group for telecommunications companies including AT&T;, says AT&T;’s promise was primarily a formality AT&T; needed to state in order to proceed with its acquisition last week of Bell South Corp., and doesn’t really change anything regarding network neutrality.

AT&T;’s promise also is limited in scope. It doesn’t cover wireless broadband Internet access or the delivery of video content over the Internet through IPTV. But by promising to abide by network neutrality principles for two years, AT&T; has made it unlikely that either it or other companies would break network neutrality principles for wireless and IPTV as well as for wired Internet access during the same period, McClellan says.

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