* Committee chairman willing to rewrite law
* Democrats, Republicans divided on FCC powers
* Congress cannot tackle revamp now
WASHINGTON, April 14 The chairman of the Senate
Commerce Committee said on Wednesday he is willing to look at
rewriting the telecommunications law in the aftermath of a
court ruling last week that undermined the authority of
regulators to manage networks.
Last Tuesday, a U.S. appeals court ruled the Federal
Communications Commission failed to show it had the authority
to stop Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) from blocking online
applications for distributing television shows and other large,
The ruling dealt a blow to proponents of Net Neutrality,
who argue providers should treat all traffic on the Internet
equally, and to the FCC's authority to oversee the Internet.
John Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate panel, said at
a hearing to examine the FCC's National Broadband Plan that, if
needed, he would start looking at possible changes to the law
to help push the broadband plan forward.
"In the long-term, if there is a need to write the law to
provide consumers, the FCC, and industry with a new framework,
I, as chairman, will take that task on," the West Virginia
But Democrats and Republicans are divided on the issue and
say it is unlikely Congress would be able to focus on the
legislation in this session.
With Congress focused more on reforming financial services
regulation and climate control issues, there is almost no
chance for a telecommunications revamp with one-third of the
Senate and the entire House of Representatives focused on
reelection this year, experts have said.
And in anticipation of a potential move by the FCC, the
carriers are stepping up efforts to block such a move.
The big players in the industry -- AT&T Inc (T.N), Verizon
Communications Inc (VZ.N) and Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O), the
biggest U.S. cable provider -- are afraid the agency will
assert its authority over broadband by reclassifying it under
an existing, tighter regulatory scheme.
Since the ruling, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski vowed to
press ahead with a broadband expansion plan and issued a
timetable for public comment and rule-making on goals ranging
from reallocating airwaves to expanding Internet access for
rural and low-income households.
Genachowski told the panel he and FCC staff have not yet
made a decision on whether to reclassify broadband, but said
the agency has the power under existing law to move forward.
"I am confident that the commission has the authority it
needs to implement the broadband plan," he said.
PARTIES DIVIDED ON RECLASSIFICATION
The issue of whether the FCC has broadband authority
largely fell along party lines, with Democrats urging
Genachowski to reclassify broadband.
"I hope that you won't shy away from making the tough
decisions," said North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan.
Mike Johans, a Nebraska Republican, told Genachowski: "I am
telling you as a senator that I don't think you have the
The FCC, which has argued it has broad authority over the
Internet, unveiled last month its ambitious plan to upgrade
access for all Americans and shift spectrum from television
broadcasters to support the huge demand for smartphones and
other wireless devices.
In the House of Representatives, lawmakers on Wednesday
passed a bill requiring the Commerce Department and the FCC to
take inventory of how the U.S. airwaves are being used by
commercial companies and the U.S. government.
U.S. military and intelligence operations, however, are
expected to resist ceding spectrum for commercial use.
Other goals of the FCC broadband plan include redirecting
the Universal Service Fund (USF) that currently subsidizes
telephone access, to support high-speed Internet access for the
poor and people in rural areas.
The appeals court ruling is likely to set off a flurry of
lobbying at the FCC by Internet access and content providers
such as Google Inc (GOOG.O), Verizon and AT&T seeking to
influence the agency's next move.
"Failure to act decisively and quickly will only embolden
the special interest lobbies that have fought against public
interest policies and jeopardize both the open Internet and the
National Broadband Plan's chances for success," said Derek
Turner, a research director at Free Press, a public interest
(Reporting by John Poirier; editing by Andre Grenon)