CHICAGO – What began as a panel about the government’s rural broadband stimulus program quickly became a debate over the effects of net neutrality during an afternoon session at the Supercomm trade show yesterday.

AT&T’s Jim Cicconi, who helps head the carrier’s external and legislative affairs, bluntly criticized the net neutrality-like regulations tied to the stimulus funds.

Together with other companies on the panel, Cicconi said that the heavy regulations around issues including net neutrality and reporting discouraged large companies from getting involved in the rural broadband effort.

“There are reasons AT&T and other major carriers didn’t apply for these funds. [The government] put strings and requirements that are very similar to net neutrality laws,” said Cicconi. “That’s absolutely a factor in why AT&T didn’t apply.”

The Federal Communications Commission representative on the panel remained fairly quiet throughout Cicconi’s criticisms. John Horrigan, the consumer research director with the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative, acknowledged that “in rural markets, the hurdles are high,” but he did not concede any ground to AT&T on the requirements.

Horrigan’s mild response did not deter AT&T’s Cicconi from further criticizing the agency’s approach to the issue. Calling the concern over net neutrality “fear mongering,” Cicconi said, “There’s no convincing case that there is a discernable problem that must be addressed. … Government is playing a very dangerous game if they listen to advice of this nature.”

“Engineers can’t sit there with a lawyer at their shoulder. It’s vitally important that we not constrain the ability to run [networks] effectively, [not] to meet an unrealistic ideal set by someone who’s never been to engineering school,” he added.

Other panelists echoed his sentiments, albeit with less vehemence. Bob Udell, senior vice president of telephone operations at Consolidated Communications, suggested the stimulus funds’ rules over issues similar to net neutrality were premature. “We should find out what the problem is before proposing a solution to it,” he said.

Panel moderator Chris King, senior telecom services analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, said that the restrictions around the stimulus funds appeared to be a genuine deterrent to large companies that may have otherwise applied for the funds.

None of the companies on the panel applied for the funds. Aside from AT&T and Consolidated Communications, CenturyLink, Cisco Systems and DigitalBridge Communications were also represented on the panel.

“None of the large carriers [applied for the funds],” King said. “That doesn’t bode well for future levels of investing if net neutrality goes through.”

The heated debate occurred on the eve of the FCC’s planned vote on open Internet rules.

“Clearly, the guns are blazing when it comes to net neutrality,” King said.

Net neutrality has become a hot button issue in recent weeks after FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed the agency toughen rules around an open Internet.

Net neutrality is based on the principle that Internet providers should treat all data flowing over their networks equally, instead of restricting access to certain Web sites or applications, which sometime consume large amounts of bandwidth.

Possible enforcement of net neutrality is especially alarming for carriers like AT&T, whose network is already heavily burdened by the demands of data-intensive devices like the iPhone.

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•  Broadband stimulus panel elicits heated comments over net neutrality
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