Republicans Question Parts of FCC's Broadband Plan

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Republican members of a U.S. House of Representatives committee objected Thursday to parts of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's new national broadband plan, saying it leaves broadband carriers open to new regulation.

Republicans, and one senior Democrat, on the House Energy and Commerce Committee complained that the plan doesn't shut the door on the FCC reclassifying broadband as a common carrier, much like highly regulated telephone service.

While Chapter 4 of the broadband plan doesn't talk specifically about reclassifying broadband as a common-carrier service, committee Republicans said the chapter addressing broadband competition policy recommends a number of new rules that could potentially create new regulations for broadband providers.

"The worst idea I've heard in years is reclassification," Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said during a subcommittee hearing. "I don't want to regulate broadband like we regulated telephone service in the 1930s."

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told subcommittee members he's not planning to reclassify broadband as a common-carrier service, but the FCC will look at some "discrete" areas where it sees problems with competition, including the wholesale broadband market and the so-called special access rates paid to large telecom carriers for large-pipe connections between buildings and central switching facilities.

Genachowski said he understood fears about new regulations. "The goals of the commission very clear are to develop policies that promote investment, promote innovation, promote competition, and protect and empower consumers," he said.

Some Republicans and other observers have raised concerns about the FCC requiring broadband providers to share their fiber networks with competitors, as they were required to do with their copper networks in the late '90s and early '00s, since Cbeyond, a broadband and VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) provider, filed a petition in January for the FCC to return to network-sharing rules.

But the broadband plan says only that the petition "deserves attention."

Among the broadband plan's goals: Universal broadband availability and 100 million U.S. homes with 100M bps (bits per second) service by 2020.

Several Republican committee members praised parts of the broadband plan, but Barton, the committee's senior Republican, questioned whether a huge national broadband program was needed, when wired broadband is available to more than 90 percent of U.S. homes.

"Ninety-five percent of America has broadband, and the federal government hasn't had to spend a dime," he said. "This isn't a have/have not program, this is a find-something-for-the-FCC-to-do-that-makes-sense-in-the-21st-century program."

Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, questioned how Genachowski could talk about encouraging private investment in broadband and also propose new net neutrality rules that would prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Internet content. The broadband plan has sent a "shiver of cold" across the investment community, he said.

While Democrats generally praised the plan, Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, questioned whether the plan would open up "old policy fights" by leaving open the possibility that broadband providers share their networks. Dingell also said he was concerned about the broadband plan's proposal to take up to 120MHz of wireless spectrum from television broadcasters in exchange for a portion of the auction revenues.

TV stations gave up nearly a third of their spectrum in the transition to all-digital broadcasts that happened in June, Dingell said. "The further loss of [broadcasting] spectrum can have a very serious adverse effect on the public by limiting consumer choice," he said.

But other Democrats called the broadband plan "superb" and necessary for the U.S. to compete with other nations.

"The national broadband plan is the most significant and ambitious infrastructure program for America since the interstate highway system," said Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and committee chairman. "Our competitiveness and prosperity depend on meeting its core objectives."

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