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September 16, 2014

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Ensign becomes GOP tech star

Nevada Sen. John Ensign's handiwork can be seen all over the Senate's 2006 telecom bill, the biggest overhaul to telecommunications law in a decade and one that has ignited fierce debate over how best to govern the future of the Internet.

His work now puts Ensign in the middle of a high-tech twist on the oldest debate in the republic: How much government regulation is enough?

At every step, the Republican is guided by a free-market mantra.

Ensign wants to allow phone companies easy entrance into the cable TV business. He wants to keep big government out of the next generation of Internet development.

As the legislation moves from the Senate Commerce committee to the Senate floor, Ensign is winning praise from his party as its high-tech hotshot.

But the massive bill remains highly contentious - fellow senators initially filed more than 200 amendments in committee - and Ensign's legislative fingerprints are being duly noted by critics who complain the bill's main provisions are a giveaway to the telecom industry.

Save the Internet, a broad coalition of groups as diverse as moveon.org and the Christian Coalition, is pushing for more Internet protections than the bill provides, saying the free-market approach is not enough to prevent big business from taking over the World Wide Web.

"He's certainly in the thick of it," said Craig Aaron, a spokesman for Free Press, the Massachusetts-based organization that is the lead organizer of Save the Internet . "Sen. Ensign will play a major role in shaping this legislation. He already has. I would argue not for the better."

Opening the Internet

The centerpiece of the bill is Ensign's push to make it easier for phone companies to start carrying TV channels through the phone lines, something the U.S. Telecom Association had sought for years. As home phone ownership declines, the phone companies can boost their competitiveness by offering consumers bundled deals on telephone, Internet and cable. Cable is already shooting for the triple-play with its Internet services and increasing forays into the home-phone business.

Ensign sees opening the market as the ticket to bringing Americans more sophisticated online and television choices. He expects a multibillion-dollar investment that will fuel broadband development, which has lagged behind other nations such as Japan and Korea, where households surf the Internet at lightning-fast speeds and download increasingly complex multimedia content.

Opponents, however, fear an Internet taken over by big business, saying it will promote favored Web sites and leave the rest in the cyber-dust. They paint a picture of a not-too-distant future when Internet providers will charge to have Web sites, say a music store or political blog, loaded up faster than others, similar to the way some sites pop up as multiple ads at the top of Web searches. They say a recent Federal Communications Commission ruling eases restrictions on that practice, and the bill does nothing to stop it.

A bipartisan amendment from Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., sought to prohibit fee-for-speed Web sites and protect what is called Net neutrality.

Snowe warned the committee of a grim future when the Internet would be divided into a "fast lane" for Web sites that can afford to pay fees, and a "dirt road" for the rest.

Her side is backed by the Save the Internet coalition and Internet giants Google, Amazon and others who worry the next dorm-room entrepreneur cannot compete if they have to pay to get their Web site noticed.

The amendment was killed on an 11-11 vote. But the battle lines have been drawn. Ads for both sides blanket Washington, and the issue lights up the blogosphere. Despite the impassioned rhetoric, it can be tough to know just what the future of the Internet will look like - a few years ago it was difficult to imagine the Web today. In many ways, the answer depends on whom you trust to sort it out - the regulatory power of government or the free hand of the marketplace.

The bill certainly has the many marks of the latter.

Freedom corner

In the Senate Commerce Committee, Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, leaned on Ensign for advice. Stevens trusted his input so much that during committee meetings he would encourage others to run their questions by Nevada's junior senator.

Ensign sits in a section of the committee called "freedom corner." Here, he and a handful of like-minded senators hold firm on their laissez-faire beliefs that government should not overly regulate industry.

Ensign believes fast lanes are just part of the evolution of the Internet and could be used for a world of good - a hospital could provide online medical services, such as monitoring or getting expert advice in real-time from across the country.

He sees no evidence of the doomsday scenario Net neutrality advocates portend, and believes a consumer bill of rights he drafted ensures no one surfing the Internet will be blocked from viewing any lawful site.

His side is supported by the telephone companies and Hands Off the Internet, an industry-backed group headed by former Clinton administration press secretary Mike McCurry. They paint an equally grim view of innovation coming to a standstill if government unduly meddles with restrictions.

"We're trying to legislate on a problem that doesn't exist," Ensign told the committee. "If that was to happen in the future, I would be one of the first people to stand up and join you and fight to do something like this. But it isn't happening out there."

A veterinarian by trade, Ensign became the party's tech wiz over the past few years, starting as chairman of the Senate Republican High Tech Task Force in 2003 and leading to his center-stage role in this summer's telecom bill.

Ensign has met with industry leaders, toured other countries and assembled a staff that guides him on policy.

When Stevens took over the Commerce committee in 2005, he carved out a new technology subcommittee, giving Ensign the chairmanship.

By summer of that year, Ensign unveiled S1504, the bill that would lay the groundwork for the 2006 telecom reform now headed to the Senate floor.

Much of Ensign's original thinking is incorporated in the bill, though his other small-government initiatives lost steam. His push to privatize municipal Wi-Fi by requiring localities to hire firms to wire public places got scaled back. Instead, the bill mandates that cities only consider private bids.

The bill also contains new provisions for wiring rural states and for providing low-cost calls for troops overseas that Ensign supports, but did not originate.

Ensign has been rewarded mightily for his high-tech work, bringing in more than $517,230 in campaign contributions from the communications/electronics sector - about half from computer/Internet and telephone companies - since joining the Senate in 2001, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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