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Virtuous neutrality

What an FCC commissioner's recusal means for AT&T and BellSouth -- and millions of Internet users.

December 19, 2006

IT'S UNCLEAR WHETHER he acted out of principle or obligation, but Robert M. McDowell made the right choice Monday. McDowell, a Republican appointed earlier this year to the Federal Communications Commission by President Bush, recused himself from the FCC's decision on whether to approve AT&T's proposed acquisition of BellSouth.

His decision leaves the FCC deadlocked, with the two other Republicans resisting demands by the commission's two Democrats for more restrictions on the merged company. But that may be just as well, at least for consumers, if it leads the commission to compromise on the one issue that could most affect Internet users: something called "Net neutrality."

Democrats Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein want to bar AT&T's high-speed Internet service from offering special treatment to data from websites or online services that pay extra for it. AT&T and other broadband suppliers have resisted the Net neutrality requirement, while Google, Amazon and other Web-based companies have lobbied hard for it.

McDowell used to be a lobbyist for a trade group that opposes the merger. The FCC's general counsel recently cleared him to vote despite the apparent conflict, but McDowell opted Monday to stay out. His move increases the chances that his old employer will prevail -- that AT&T and BellSouth will be forced to accept numerous restrictions or abandon the deal. At the same time, McDowell has publicly called for fewer regulations and has questioned the need for Net neutrality rules. No matter. At least McDowell got to act principled -- in announcing his decision, he used the words "ethics" or "ethical" 33 times in five pages.

The Justice Department has already signed off on the merger, but AT&T can't complete the purchase without the assent of the FCC. That means Copps and Adelstein, who are more skeptical about the deal's benefits for the public, have an unusual amount of leverage as long as McDowell stays out of the picture.

And that's a good thing, at least as far as Net neutrality is concerned. This merger is less troubling than it would have been a decade ago, with Internet service providers, cable TV and wireless companies all offering alternatives to the local phone companies' copper lines. There is far less competition, however, in high-speed Internet service. In many parts of the country, consumers may have only one or no alternative to the DSL service to be offered by AT&T/BellSouth.

That's why the merger should not be approved unless there is a guarantee that AT&T will offer a level playing field to websites and online services, at least until their customers have more choices for high-speed Internet connections.

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