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US senator says willing to consider telecom revamp
April 14, 2010 / 10:28 PM / 8 years ago

US senator says willing to consider telecom revamp

* Committee chairman willing to rewrite law

* Democrats, Republicans divided on FCC powers

* Congress cannot tackle revamp now

WASHINGTON, April 14 (Reuters) - 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, bandwidth-hogging files.

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 Democrat said.

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 power.”

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 group. (Reporting by John Poirier; editing by Andre Grenon)

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