CTIA's Baker praises Republican net neutrality bills, but AT&T's Stephenson sees lawsuits ahead

Representatives from the wireless and cable industry lobbies heaped praise on a Republican legislative proposal to ensure net neutrality. However, Democrats remained skeptical because it would stop the FCC from reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Meanwhile, AT&T (NYSE: T) CEO Randall Stephenson said he sees the new rules from the FCC triggering lawsuits that could go all the way up the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We do not ask that wireless be exempt from any new laws, only that any new requirements reflect our industry, our technology, and our inherent differences," CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker said in prepared testimony at a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee. The House and Senate commerce committees held hearings on the legislation on Wednesday.

CTIA and much of the wireless industry have called for "light touch" wireless net neutrality regulations and want the FCC's rules drawn under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. CTIA and wireless carriers have said wireless operators need more flexibility than wireline ISPs to manage their networks, especially because of spectrum constraints.

Baker, a former FCC commissioner, called the draft an "excellent start" and a "reasonable path" toward preserving an open Internet with enforceable requirements.

The draft legislation from Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) says that Internet service providers (ISPs) "may not block lawful content, applications, or services, subject to reasonable network management." The bills would also block ISPs from throttling traffic "by selectively slowing, speeding, degrading, or enhancing Internet traffic based on source, destination, or content." Further, the bills would bar paid prioritization of Internet traffic.

However, the bills provide a large loophole for what constitutes "reasonable network management." The legislation would also block the FCC from using Section 706 to enact net neutrality rules and would define broadband as an information service.

Testifying before a House subcommittee on Wednesday, National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Michael Powell said the legislation could "finally put an end to the controversy over the FCC's attempts to establish a regulatory framework that protects and preserves an open Internet."

Powell is a former FCC chairman, and like Baker is now lobbying on behalf industries he used to regulate. Powell was chairman of the FCC in 2002 when the commission decided that Internet access would be treated as an "information service" rather than telecommunication service under Title II. He argued in his testimony that even if the FCC used forbearance and abstained from most regulatory provisions under Title II, the rules would still post risks to broadband providers and harm investment.

"Our opposition to Title II does not stem from some nefarious desire to exercise control over consumers' Internet habits, but rather is spurred by our knowledge of the very real harms that will follow if broadband services are subject to Title II's outdated regulations," he said.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler indicated earlier this month that he favored reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II as part of an effort to craft new net neutrality rules. Wheeler said the FCC is going to circulate a rulemaking to all its commissioners on Feb. 5 and vote on it Feb. 26.

"I do not expect our draft to be a final product, but I also believe that it is not a partisan starting point to the conversation. We have put forth a good-faith proposal to find common ground between the parties," Thune said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Democrats were not convinced and, according to the Washington Post, are itching for a fight over net neutrality. "I remain concerned about any proposal that would strip away the FCC's tools to enforce essential consumer protections for broadband service," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the commerce committee's top Democrat, said at the hearing, according to the Journal. "It is more important to get this issue right than to get it done right now. The stakes are too high."

Stephenson, meanwhile, said during an interview with CNBC from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that "everyone" agrees on the need for a neutral Internet. "Where everyone is getting stuck now is going beyond that," he said.

Stephenson said that if the FCC moves ahead with a Title II approach there will likely be litigation. "If history is any indicator of what happens in the future," he said, "the lawsuits will go through the process, ultimately, probably resulting in a Supreme Court [action]."

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Broadcasting & Cable article
- see this Washington Post article
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this CNBC article
- see this Dallas Business Journal article

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