Democrats to launch effort to rewrite Telecom Act

Four chairmen say they will start soliciting ideas for new legislation in June

Four leading Democrats in the Congress will begin a process of rewriting the 14-year-old law that is the regulatory framework for the U.S. telecommunications and broadband industries, with the group of lawmakers ready to hear proposals starting in June, they said Monday.

The four lawmakers, all chairmen of committees or subcommittees that have jurisdiction over telecommunications and the Internet, said they will invite interested parties to participate in a series of "bipartisan, issue-focused" meetings on a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, with the meetings starting in June. The Telecom Act was an update of the 1934 Communications Act.

The announcement came from Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Representative Henry Waxman of California, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce; Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet; and Representative Rick Boucher of Virginia, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

Also on Monday, more than 70 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, saying they have concerns about the agency's plan to reclassify broadband as a regulated service. The FCC proposal is an alternative to new telecom legislation after an appeals court ruled in April that the FCC didn't have the authority to enforce informal network neutrality rules.

The House Democrats said they were concerned that an FCC reclassification of broadband would be a distraction from the agency's goal of bringing broadband to all U.S. residents.

The four Democratic chairman didn't mention the opposition to broadband classification in a press release Monday. However, Rockefeller and Waxman have previously called on the FCC to consider reclassifying broadband in an effort to enforce net neutrality and other consumer protection rules. The four lawmakers will soon release a list of topics to be discussed in a Telecom Act rewrite, they said.

A rewrite of the Telecom Act would likely take several months, if not years. It would be difficult for Congress to pass a major new bill by November's congressional elections.

The announcement, however, comes after growing calls from telecom groups for Congress to dive back into the Telecom Act. In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down a decision by the FCC to enforce informal net neutrality rules in a case involving Comcast throttling subscribers' access to the BitTorrent peer-to-peer service.

FCC officials and some telecom legal experts have said that the court's decision casts doubt on the FCC's ability to enforce any of its rules related to broadband service, and earlier this month, FCC chairman Julius Genachowksi announced plans to reclassify broadband from a largely unregulated information service to a regulated common-carrier service in order to enforce net neutrality and other consumer protection rules.

Representatives of some telecom carriers and free-market groups have opposed the FCC's reclassification effort and suggested that the agency should instead come to Congress for new authority. In mid-May, Boucher said he was ready to move forward with a Telecom Act rewrite as a way to create net neutrality rules, if carriers preferred that to FCC action.

Before the court ruling, Verizon Communications executive Tom Tauke also called for a Telecom Act rewrite, saying the 1996 law was "irrelevant" to the current Internet marketplace. Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications, called for Congress to take away the FCC's rulemaking authority.

Public Knowledge, a digital rights group and net neutrality supporter, praised the lawmakers' announcement.

"The world has changed considerably since 1996, and Congress should be looking at how the law should accommodate today's technology and marketplace," Gigi Sohn, the group's president, said in a statement.

The FCC, however, should continue with its efforts to create some consumer protection rules for broadband providers, she added. The lawmakers' announcement "appears to be the start of a long process," she said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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