Senator pledges support for net neutrality, broadband plan

Rockefeller says he will act to give the FCC new authority if that's what's needed

The powerful chairman of a U.S. Senate committee will push for additional authority for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to enforce net neutrality rules and implement its new national broadband plan, if it's needed following a court ruling against the agency this month.

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to throw out the FCC's attempt to enforce net neutrality rules against Comcast puts the entire broadband plan, released last month, at risk, said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

But Rockefeller urged FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to move ahead with the broadband plan and net neutrality rules anyway. "In the near term, I want the agency to use all of its existing authority," he said.

Comcast and other broadband providers want to take the FCC's authority away, Rockefeller added. "In the long term, if there is a need to rewrite the law to provide consumers and the FCC and industry with a new framework, I as chairman will take that task on," he said. "This is a committee -- at least so long as I am chairman -- that is here to protect people, to protect consumers."

Still, Rockefeller said he was somewhat disappointed in the FCC's 376-page broadband plan because it does not move fast enough to bring broadband service to more U.S. residents. "It is long on vision, but it is short on tactics," he said.

Genachowski defended the broadband plan, saying the FCC has already begun implementing its recommendations. Last Thursday, the agency released a schedule listing more than 60 proceedings it plans to launch this year to implement parts of the plan, he noted.

The FCC has the authority to implement the national broadband plan, Genachowski added. "I believe it is vitally important that the commission act on the broadband plan's road map to protect America's global competitiveness and help deliver the extraordinary benefits of broadband to all Americans," he said. "I can assure the committee that our actions will be rooted in a sound legal foundation, designed to promote investment, innovation, competition and consumer interests."

Among the broadband plan's goals: universal broadband availability across the U.S. and 100 million U.S. homes with 100M bps (bits per second) service by 2020. The broadband plan would also identify 500MHz of wireless spectrum to be auctioned or shared for mobile broadband over the next 10 years, and redirect US$15.5 billion from the FCC's Universal Service Fund from traditional telephone subsidies to broadband deployment.

But while Rockefeller and several other Democrats on the commerce committee urged the FCC to move forward with the broadband plan and its attempt to formalize net neutrality rules prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking Internet content, several committee Republicans suggested the FCC has little authority to move forward in either area.

Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, complained that the broadband plan would create huge new federally funded programs, including a volunteer Digital Literacy Corps. The FCC has said the broadband plan would not require additional spending from Congress because it would pay for itself through spectrum auctions.

A light regulatory approach to the Internet by the FCC in the past has promoted innovation, said Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the senior committee Republican. The FCC should resist calls to reclassify broadband as a common carrier-type regulated service, she said.

"In my judgment, if the FCC were to take the action that Chairman Genachowski and his colleagues appear to be considering ... without a directive from Congress and a thorough analysis of the facts and the potential consequences to investment, the legitimacy of the agency would be thoroughly compromised," she said. "I am asking you today to step back and consider the consequences of such a decision."

The broadband plan, which is largely silent on net neutrality, could still face legal challenges, Hutchison said. "Many of the commentators are very concerned that all this process means is we're going to spend a lot of money on lawyers and not as much on innovation, and it's going to cause more confusion and instability in investment," she said.

Genachowski declined to say if the FCC was considering reclassifying broadband as a common carrier service. The agency's lawyers are looking at the options for moving forward with net neutrality rules, he said.

After the recent Comcast decision, the FCC does not have the authority to reclassify broadband as a common carrier service, even though the commission deregulated broadband in series of decisions in the past decade, said Senator Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican.

"The bottom line is this: If you want to make policy, then what you need to do is pay the filing fee, do a lot of parades, raise money and start at the [congressional] end of the table," he said. "It's just a situation, I believe, where Congress has not given you the power that you're attempting to assert."

But Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said the FCC has the authority to change regulatory rules it originally made. "The free marketplace is a wonderful place, free and open market are important, but you need a referee with a striped shirt to call the fouls," he said. "The FCC is the referee, and I want you to have the [regulatory] touch that's necessary to protect the interests of American people and the citizens that use the Internet."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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