US telecommunications and cable companies on Wednesday scored a big victory in the US Congress by defeating proposals in a key Senate committee for strict price controls on the high-speed networks that will form the next generation of internet connectivity.

In an 11-11 vote, the Senate commerce committee on Wednesday failed to include amendments to a broader telecommunications bill that would have prevented AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and other broadband providers from charging more for priority access to the high-speed networks of the future. Similar amendments failed earlier this month in the House.

Despite the defeat, the debate over “net neutrality” – the principle that all content providers should be treated equally on the internet – is far from over, lobbyists close to the issue said on Wednesday. The issue pits big telecoms companies against giants of the internet content world, like Google, Yahoo and Ebay. Proponents of net neutrality are expected to keep pressing the issue, including on the floor of the US Senate, where efforts will again be made to add net neutrality language to the bill.

“Imposing heavy handed regulation before there is a demonstrated need is wrong,” said Senator Ted Stevens, the Republican committee chair, who was supported by most committee Republicans.

But another Republican Senator, Olympia Snowe, who co-sponsored tough neutrality amendments with a Democrat, said before the vote that failure would jeopardise the openness of the internet. “What you will have is a monopolistic, duopolistic controlled network,” she said. “Broadband operators will be able to pick the winners and losers.”

The defeat is a big blow to the campaign by internet companies to get tough regulations on internet pricing and discrimination written into law. Telecoms companies say that unless they are allowed to charge more to construct a “fast lane” on the internet, they will not be able to build the new high-speed networks that can handle broadband-hungry services like videos.

But internet content companies – backed by an eclectic coalition that includes not just internet civil libertarians and consumer groups, but gun rights groups, the Christian Coaltion and musicians like the Dixie Chicks – say that price differentiation would jeopardise the freedom that has fostered innovation in cyberspace. They want stricter regulation of broadband services, which have been very lightly regulated up to now.

Lobbyists close to the issue say that pressure on Congress’s calendar in an election year makes it unlikely that a telecoms bill will make it all the way through the legislative process this year.

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