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The battle over Net neutrality has shifted from a Senate panel, where a bill to force Internet service providers to maintain a level playing field was rejected, to the full Senate, where an even bigger battle may be brewing.
The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday voted 11-11 on an amendment that would have barred telephone and cable companies from charging others for delivering high-bandwidth services over the Internet. The tie meant the Net neutrality measure would not be a part of a sweeping telecommunications reform bill that was approved by the panel.
But rather than mark the end, the committee's action merely shifted the focus of the divisive issue to the full Senate. The fact that the committee tied on the amendment is considered an indication that the Senate may also be split and that conditions ripe for a dogfight.
"There will be an epic battle in the Senate over Net neutrality," said Adam Green, a spokesman for MoveOn.org Civic Action, which is part of a coalition fighting for the amendment.
Some neutral observers see the potential for a political brawl. David Kaut, a telecom analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, told the Washington Post that the tie vote suggests a hardening of opposition by Senate Democrats unless a bill includes Net neutrality safeguards.
At issue is a telecom reform bill approved by the committee without the Net neutrality amendment. The fate of that bill is expected to hinge on the outcome of the Net neutrality debate. When Congress returns from its recess in September, there will be little time to pass bills before the session ends and lawmakers head back to their home turf for the November elections.
Already, there are indications that some Democrats may seek a filibuster if a Net neutrality measure doesn't get in the telecom bill. Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has reportedly said he doesn't believe he has the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster.
Among the senators leading the fight for Net neutrality is Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has publicly said he would oppose any effort to have the full Senate consider the telecom bill without the amendment. Wyden's statement to the Senate following the committee vote was seen by some observers as an indication that he would try for a filibuster if the current bill moved forward.
"I believe these changes are so important, mean so much to our country, it ought to be possible for the Senate to slow this down and take the time to really consider what the implications are of a badly flawed piece of legislation with respect to its treatment of the Internet," Wyden said before the Senate.
Supporters outside the Senate are also not standing still. MoveOn.org Civic Action on Thursday sent emails to constituents within the states of senators on the committee who voted against the amendment, urging them to call their senator's office to object to the vote. MoveOn.org is part of the Save The Internet.com alliance that also includes the Christian Coalition.
Groups against a Net neutrality amendment are also unlikely to be silent. Besides the heavy lobbying efforts by telephone and cable companies, such as Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp., groups such as the Computing Technology Industry Association are expected to fight hard to get the telecom bill on the Senate floor.
"We commend the Senate's work yesterday, and look forward to helping its passage on the Senate floor," ComTIA said in a statement released Thursday.
Aside from the Net neutrality issue, a major provision of the telecom reform bill would make it easier for telephone companies to seek approval for launching TV services that could compete against cable operators. The bill would require states to streamline the process to 90 days.
Proponents of the Net neutrality amendment, which include Internet giants Yahoo and Google, say it is necessary to keep the Internet open to startups and smaller companies that couldn't afford fees for faster delivery of services. Opponents argue that the law is unnecessary since there's no indication that companies that own today's broadband networks would discriminate against companies that didn't pay for higher bandwidth.