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Access to Broadband Networks

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Debate has begun about what statutory and regulatory framework is most likely to foster innovation and investment both in physical broadband networks and in the applications that ride over those networks. Perhaps the most contentious element in that debate is whether competitive marketplace forces are sufficient to constrain the broadband network providers from restricting independent applications providers' access to their networks in a fashion that would harm consumers and innovation.

The telephone and cable companies are deploying wireline broadband networks with unique architectures. For example, Verizon is deploying optical fiber all the way to the customer premise, while AT&T is deploying fiber to a node and then using DSL over existing copper lines to reach the customer premise, and Comcast and other cable companies are deploying a hybrid fiber-coaxial cable network. But in each case, their broadband networks have the same basic structure, with three primary components -- the broadband "last mile" grid to end-user customers, the company's proprietary IP network, and the company's facilities in what has traditionally been called the internet backbone (and is often referred to as the "public internet"). This report analyzes these three components to identify the parameters that network providers have within their control (such as their choices about network architecture, overall bandwidth capacity, bandwidth reserved for their own use, traffic prioritization, the terms and rates for access to their networks and for their retail services) that can affect how end users and independent applications providers can access their networks, how those parameters contribute to the management and operation of the network, and how those parameters might be used strategically to harm competition for, and consumers of, voice over internet protocol (VoIP), video, and other applications that ride over broadband networks.

The report then reviews various legislative proposals affecting network access to assess their potential impact on broadband network providers' ability to manage their networks and to practice anticompetitive strategic behavior. Two bills, H.R. 5252 as passed by the House and H.R. 5252 as amended by the Senate Commerce Committee (originally introduced as S. 2686), specify particular consumer rights to broadband access. Three bills -- H.R. 5273, S. 2360, and S. 2917 -- propose variations on "network neutrality" rules that have provisions affecting the access of independent applications providers, as well as consumers, to broadband networks. Two other bills, H.R. 5417 and S. 2113, propose modification of existing competition law (involving antitrust and unfair methods of competition) to explicitly address broadband access issues. This report will be updated as warranted.