updated 11/15/2006 8:20:18 AM ET 2006-11-15T13:20:18

The Japanese government on Wednesday set up a panel to discuss Internet network neutrality -- a concept that has stirred heated debate in the United States -- and study how the surging popularity of free file-sharing services such as YouTube.com is impacting the infrastructure.

In the U.S., Internet companies like Google Inc. want lawmakers to bar providers like Verizon Communications and AT&T Inc. from charging Web users to guarantee quality and offer services that have faster download speeds for uses such as movies.

The providers have also criticised Web firms as "free riders" of their heavily-invested networks, while they say they have no intention of blocking consumers' access to public Internet sites.

Japanese network providers also face pressure to increase investments as Web traffic soared in the past year with more people getting music and video clips from other Internet users' computers, rather than watching them via online streaming.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said it will call for inputs from companies such as Google, Yahoo Japan Corp. and Apple Computer Inc., as well as phone operators and television networks, and aim to compile a final report on the subject by July 2007.

Earlier this year, Japan's ministry put together a report on future competition policy in the industry, in which it made some recommendations on the Internet neutrality issue.

The report gave suggestions such as charging extra fees to heavy Internet users to lighten the cost burden on network providers, while making sure that end-users and content providers would be able to access the network freely.

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