Lawmakers to FCC: Stop mulling net neutrality reclassification

Some Republican House members question the need for the FCC to move forward with any net neutrality rules

Republican legislators don't even want the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to think about reclassifying broadband as a utility -- a route the regulator could take in order to reinstate net neutrality rules.

New regulations would hurt broadband deployment, several Republican members of the House of Representatives said.

Several Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee called on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to drop all efforts to reinstate net neutrality rules, including his proposal that would not rely on regulating broadband as a common-carrier utility service.

Net neutrality rules would be "nothing more than a price control" for broadband, U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, said to Wheeler during a Tuesday hearing. "It's a very dangerous path that you're headed down."

Other Republicans focused most of their ire on calls by some Internet users and digital rights groups to reclassify broadband under traditional common-carrier telecom regulations in Title II of the Telecommunications Act after a U.S. appeals court threw out the FCC's old net neutrality rules in January.

The FCC's net neutrality notice, released last week, "tees up the long-dead idea that the Internet is a common carrier," said Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and chairman of the committee's communications subcommittee.

Common-carrier regulations were focused on a monopoly telecom carrier and "harken back to a world in which twisted copper was the only portal for consumers to the communications network and voice was the only service," Walden added.

Advocates of Title II reclassification say it would put the FCC on a solid regulatory footing for prohibiting broadband providers from selectively slowing Web content or charging Web content producers for prioritized traffic. Some advocates of strong net neutrality rules, including digital rights groups Free Press and Public Knowledge and members of Reddit, have criticized Wheeler's alternative approach that would allow broadband providers to engage in "commercially reasonable" traffic management.

Rep. Bob Latta, an Ohio Republican, said he plans to introduce legislation that would prohibit the FCC from reclassifying broadband under Title II.

Wheeler defended the FCC notice, saying it merely asks for public input on the best way to reinstate net neutrality rules after the appeals court ruling in January. His approach, he said, would follow a "roadmap" laid out by the court opinion that would allow net neutrality rules under a section of the Telecom Act that encourages broadband deployment, instead of reclassifying.

The current debate over how to enforce net neutrality rules is "very healthy," Wheeler said. "There are two diametrically opposed positions. One is, you should not do anything, and the other is, it should go all the way to be regulated like a public utility."

While Wheeler's proposal doesn't ban outright paid priority business models, last week's notice asks whether it should, and Wheeler's FCC would consider most such arrangements to be unreasonable business practices, he said. Broadband subscribers should have access to all the bandwidth they pay for, he said.

"There is only one Internet," he said. "There is not a fast lane and a slow lane."

Subcommittee Democrats encouraged Wheeler to pass new net neutrality rules, but some appeared to be skeptical of reclassifying broadband as a utility. The FCC should prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking Web content, and paid priority plans represent a "fundamental departure from the Internet as we know it," said Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat.

But moving to Title II could make room for "heavy-handed regulation," Eshoo added. "I think that we need a light, but strengthful, touch in this," she said.

Representative Henry Waxman, another California Democrat, called on the FCC to use Section 706, the broadband deployment section of the Telecom Act, to pass net neutrality rules, but also rely on Title II common-carrier rules as a "backstop" to ban any paid prioritization of Web content by broadband providers.

"You don't have to settle for weak open Internet rules, if you exercise your full powers," Waxman said.

While the FCC notice asks when and if the agency should allow any paid prioritization, "this will create a lot of ambiguity and a lot of litigation," he said. "Bright lines would be much better for the market and for innovation."

But Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, suggested paid-for-priority plans would have some merit.

"What people are trying to do is [say], 'I want to pay a minimal price and get all this broadband, and I want to download everything from Netflix, and I don't want to pay if I download everything they rent,'" he said. "The broadband providers, who have spent billions and billions of dollars and who have networked this country ... may want to provide, based on volume of use, some kind of pricing system,"

Net neutrality rules wouldn't prevent broadband providers from charging subscribers higher prices for a faster connection, Wheeler said. "The concept of the open Internet is I have bought this broad pathway, and I have the right to use it unfettered," he said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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