Lawmaker Challenges Broadband Providers on Net Neutrality

If broadband providers don't want the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband as a regulated service, Congress is willing to pass a network neutrality law and address a major reason for reclassification, a senior lawmaker said Thursday.

Broadband providers have a second option to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's proposal to reclassify broadband transmission as a common-carrier service, said Representative Rick Boucher, chairman of the communications and Internet subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

With enforcement of net neutrality rules a major driver for Genachowski's reclassification plan, broadband providers instead could work with the subcommittee to craft a net neutrality law, said Boucher, a Virginia Democrat.

"If broadband providers differ with the approach that the FCC has taken ... our door is open," Boucher said at a hearing largely focused on broadband adoption. "We would be pleased to discuss with broadband providers, and with the proponents of network neutrality, the creation of a targeted set of principles to ensure network openness."

Genachowski announced the plan to reclassify broadband last week, in response to an appeals court decision saying the agency did not have the authority to enforce informal net neutrality principles. After the appeals court ruling, the FCC's authority to pass any rules related to broadband, including a set of formal net neutrality rules Genachowski has proposed, is in doubt until the agency reclassifies broadband from a largely unregulated information service to a regulated common-carrier service, FCC officials said.

Some critics of Genachowski's reclassification plan, including several congressional Republicans, have questioned whether the FCC should move forward with a major shift in broadband policy without congressional approval. This week, Representative Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, introduced a bill that would require the FCC to deliver a detailed report to Congress on market failures in the broadband industry before the agency reclassifies broadband.

Opponents of reclassification and the FCC's net neutrality proposal have suggested both would be challenged in court. AT&T and other broadband providers have opposed the FCC's net neutrality proposal, saying there's little evidence of broadband providers selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic.

Boucher praised the FCC plan to reclassify broadband, saying it was a "light regulatory touch." Under the plan, the FCC would forbear from enforcing 42 of the 48 common-carrier regulations in Title II of the Communications Act, he noted.

But if broadband providers and other critics of reclassification would rather have a net neutrality law than a set of FCC rules, Boucher said he's ready to move forward with legislation in the subcommittee. "If broadband providers are of the view that targeted legislation is now preferable to the selective application of Title II to broadband, I'd like them to engage in discussions with us on what those targeted provisions should be," he said.

An AT&T spokesman, asked about Boucher's comments, pointed to a statement on reclassification released last week by Jim Cicconi, the company's senior executive vice president, external and legislative affairs.

"The fact remains that Congress has never given the FCC explicit authority to regulate the Internet under Title II," he said. "Simply because it desires to do so, or is concerned because a court has questioned its authority to do so, does not by itself confer legal authority. That can only come from the Congress in our system of laws. If the FCC is concerned about its authority, or is unsatisfied with available Title I remedies, the right and proper step is to place that question before the Congress."

Stearns, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, praised Boucher for suggesting legislation as an alternative to broadband reclassification. The FCC should come to Congress before reclassifying broadband, he said.

"We have seen government regulations in the past, and they are anything but light," Stearns said. "Net neutrality is a term which has various meanings to many people. Certainly, to me, it means 'Net regulation."

Congress did not intend for broadband to be regulated like a common-carrier service, Stearns added. The subcommittee could create a bipartisan bill on net neutrality, he said, even though he questioned whether Democrats were pushing net neutrality as a political issue.

While the hearing was supposed to be focused on broadband adoption, many subcommittee members used their time to comment on Genachowski's reclassification plan.

Representative G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat, said he was "deeply concerned" that the FCC's efforts to reclassify broadband discourage broadband providers from investing in their networks and rolling out broadband to areas that don't yet have it.

The reclassification plan has "definitely encroached into our legislative arena," added Representative Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican.

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