Lawmakers want to update Communications Act for broadband era

Two leading Republican lawmakers said Tuesday they want to start a multi-year effort to reform the Communications Acts of 1996 and update it for the age of broadband communications and next-generation wireless services.

Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, said the law badly needs to be remade to catch up to the changes in technology that have occurred in the past decade. The goal is to reform the law sometime in 2015, and that process will begin with a series of hearings next year, as well as white papers on the state of the industry and input from the public.

Upton and Walden announced the plans during a Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) hangout, but did not specifically describe what should be changed in the statute. The law governs the authority the FCC has over everything from wireline and satellite communications to wireless networks.

Over the past several years, analysts, lawmakers and even FCC commissioners have indicated an interest in revising the law. The last major issue that flared up regarding the statute was when the FCC was devising its net neutrality rules in 2010. Former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski found a way forward on net neutrality by essentially reclassifying broadband from a Title I information service under the act to a Title II common-carrier service, while at the same time agreeing not to pursue many of the regulations that are imposed on Title II services such as telephone systems.

At the time, Republicans denounced the move and the FCC's rules have been challenged in court, with their fate in doubt. At the heart of the debate is how much authority the FCC has to regulate broadband systems under the 1996 law. That issue is sure to be a heated point of contention in any debate to rewrite the law.

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said he supports reforming the law. "Some provisions of the act have yellowed with age, unchanged, since the Great Depression; even those of more recent vintage predate the transformative impacts of the Internet, competition and innovation," he said in a statement. "In a converged industry, it does not make sense to apply different rules to providers and technologies that compete in the same markets."

Democrats were not involved in the announcement, but Rep. John Dingell (D- Mich.), a veteran lawmaker, indicated cautious support for the effort afterward.

"As the author of every major telecommunications statute for the past three decades, I caution my Republican colleagues to approach modernizing the Communications Act with great care and attention to detail," he said in a statement. "Changes should not be made simply for change's sake, but rather based on clear and documented need. I urge my colleagues to proceed in a bipartisan manner and to hold numerous hearings in order to generate the record an undertaking this substantial will require. This will affect a rapidly changing industry, with many jobs and billions of dollars in investment at stake. We should approach this in a balanced fashion in order to preserve and promote American leadership in the telecommunications industry. I am ready, willing, and able to work with my Republican and Democratic colleagues in this effort."

Jot Carpenter, CTIA's vice president of government affairs, said in a statement that the group welcomes the reform effort. "We hope Congress will continue to adhere to a 'light-touch' approach to wireless regulation and use this effort not to impose new obligations, but rather to encourage the deployment of advanced wireless infrastructure and streamline the regulatory process," he said.

For more:
- see this release
- see this Multichannel News article
- see this CNET article
- see this The Verge article

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