Oklahoma small business owners with a presence on the Internet should either be thrilled or terrified by the telecommunications legislation Congress is considering, depending on who's offering an opinion on the bills.
Some say the legislation would lead to greater investment in the networks, thus providing Web surfers with better and faster access to business owners' Web sites. Those on the other side of the issue say small businesses' Web access will get squeezed out by the big companies that can afford to pay for premium service.
The Internet is evolving, said AT&T spokesperson Claudia Jones from her office in Washington, D.C. It's not what it was 10 years ago, or five years ago.
Technologies that require greater bandwidth, like streaming video and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), are in high demand, and Internet providers need to invest in a better, faster network if they expect to keep up, she said.
The question is whether or not Congress is going to force the consumer to shoulder the entire load of building the new system, Jones said.
Roughly 10 years after Congress last tackled such an extensive piece of telecommunications legislation, the U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to approve the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act. The Senate was scheduled to hold hearings on the Consumer's Choice and Broadband Deployment Act on Tuesday, with a final version of the bill expected by the end of next week.
In part, the bills would make it easier for telephone companies to expand into television business. The legislation would allow the Baby Bell telephone companies - incumbent telephone companies formed from the breakup of the AT&T monopoly in 1984 - to obtain national video franchises, instead of having to secure franchise agreements one at a time with individual towns and cities to provide video programing.
The portion of the federal legislation dealing with video franchises would appear to have little effect in Oklahoma. Attorney General Drew Edmondson issued a legal opinion in May stating that Oklahoma's incumbent telephone company, formerly called SBC but now known as AT&T, already has been granted the right of way statewide by explicit language in the Oklahoma Constitution. AT&T may use its telephone lines to offer other services, such as video programming, without having to secure additional franchises, Edmondson said. But other states' constitutions do not provide telephone companies with statewide right of way, and the incumbent telephone companies have lobbied hard in Washington for federal legislation that would allow them to secure a national video franchise.
Cox Oklahoma, a major competitor with AT&T for phone, Internet and video services in Oklahoma, had objected to Edmondson's opinion. The cable television company pays nearly $14 million a year in franchise fees with municipalities in Oklahoma.
But when it comes to a proposal known as network neutrality, AT&T and Cox are in perfect agreement - the federal government should not interfere with the companies' management of their own networks, say officials from both the telephone company and the cable company.
Google, Microsoft, AARP, the Consumer Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Coalition of America are among the numerous organizations that have urged Congress to adopt a network neutrality provision that would prohibit Internet providers from discriminating against content or extorting exorbitant fees from those who put their information on the Internet. …