Internet providers want Congress to keep hands off online traffic deals

Internet providers and wireless companies are warning lawmakers not to get overly involved in deals over online traffic.

In comments filed to the House Energy and Commerce Committee this month, USTelecom — which represents Internet providers — said lawmakers and regulators should stay out of “interconnection” deals, the arrangements Internet providers make with each other and websites to handle online traffic.

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These deals sparked public interest earlier this year when Netflix publicly feuded with Comcast and Verizon over interconnection fees. The video streaming service accused Internet providers of slowing down Netflix users’ traffic to force the company to pay for better connections.

The companies, not regulators, should handle issues stemming from interconnection agreements, USTelecom wrote.

Interconnection issues “are highly technically in nature,” and therefore “best left to network engineers, not federal or state regulators,” the group, whose Board of Directors includes AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink executives, wrote.

The comments come as the House Energy and Commerce Committee rewrites the Communications Act, most recently updated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The committee has called for public input on multiple issues addressed by the law, with comments on interconnection due late last week.

When the committee called for comment on interconnection last month, House Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) called the topic “one of the most important aspects of communications policy — the way we ensure these many networks work together to deliver information and content and keep Americans connected.”

While the 1996 law set rules for interconnection among phone networks, policymakers have largely stayed out of disputes regarding interconnection with Internet providers.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler announced in June that the agency is collecting information about interconnection deals following Netflix’s high-profile feuds, and some have pushed Wheeler to consider including interconnection as the agency rewrites its net neutrality rules.

While Internet providers have publicly welcomed the agency’s watchful eye, USTelecom warned against Congress setting rules for interconnection deals.

“It is important to note that the Internet — this network of interconnected networks — developed and is currently flourishing without a government-prescribed interconnection mandate or a government-sanctioned interconnection framework,” the group wrote.

“The Internet backbone ... has flourished in the absence of regulation.”

In its comments, CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents wireless companies including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, pushed for a uniform “light regulatory touch.”

Negotiations between companies “should certainly be the primary mechanism” for interconnection, the group said, adding that “Congress should consider including a regulatory backstop in the Act to help resolve disputes” that cannot be resolved through private negotiations.

On the other side of the issue, the Internet Association — which represents Internet companies including Netflix and Google — called on lawmakers to get involved when Internet providers are misusing interconnection deals.

“Policymakers should ensure that broadband Internet access providers are not engaged in any market abuses through peering arrangements,” the group said, echoing comments it made to the FCC last month.

“They should be prepared to exercise their authority to prevent any abuse that they uncover.”