BURLINGTON -- Open access to the Internet is vital to the free flow of information both for ideas and commerce, Vermont business owners and others told a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

A proposal being considered by the Federal Communications Commission that would allow Internet service providers to pay more to ensure a fast lane could hurt everything from job seekers at local libraries to Vermont businesses that rely on high-speed Internet access to sell their products across the globe.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who is proposing a law that would require the FCC to ban so-called paid prioritization agreements, held the hearing in Vermont to get the opinions of people who would not be likely to testify before the committee in Washington.

"There simply cannot be a system of tiered Internet access in this country that would set limits on bandwidth or speed because of paid prioritized transmission," said Martha Reid, the Vermont state librarian. "Such a scheme would only increase the gap that already exists between the 'haves' and 'have nots' and would create friction and, in some cases, insurmountable obstacles for citizens to get the information they need."

In May the FCC proposed rules that would allow Internet providers to charge other companies for priority, high-speed access to their users. The FCC will issue its final rules later this year.

Leahy has proposed a law that would prohibit paid fast lanes.

No supporters of the paid fast lane testified before Leahy and U.


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S. Rep. Peter Welch.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has said that its members support clear rules to ensure consumers have "an open and unfettered" Internet experience and that its members have every incentive to ensure that all consumers enjoy fast Internet services.

Cabot Orton said his grandparents started the Vermont Country Store mail order business by taking advantage of rural free delivery from the post office that brought mail and packages to rural parts of the country. Now he is the co-proprietor that has two retail outlets and an online presence that supports 450 jobs in southern Vermont.

The Internet needs to remain the same level playing field that was provided by the U.S. Postal Service that helped his grandparents succeed and later the Interstate highway system that helped open up parts of Vermont to the rest of the country, he said.

"It's not hard to imagine small businesses forced to suffer demolition by neglect in the Internet slow lane, or to endure ruinous costs to squeeze into the Internet fast lane with the big guys," Orton said.