June meetings to focus on FCC's Web proposals

As the FCC faces industry criticism for its new effort to assert authority over the Internet, four prominent congressional committee chairs are taking the first steps to update the Communications Act.

The lawmakers — Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) plus Reps. Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) — said in a statement they will “invite stakeholders to participate in a series of bipartisan, issue-focused meetings” starting in June.

They did not issue a list of topics that will be discussed. But at the top of the agenda is expected to be the FCC’s National Broadband Plan and its open Internet proposals, also called net neutrality.

The FCC’s efforts to implement significant parts of either plan were put into doubt when a federal appeals court last month ruled in favor of Comcast as it challenged the grounds on which the commission cracked down on its efforts to slow the speed of a file-sharing service.

The court decision forced the FCC to find another legal standing under which it would have authority over the Internet. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski announced recently that it planned to reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications service,” giving it a more solid legal foundation but also stressing that it would be narrow in scope to prevent “regulatory overreach.”

But that approach has come under criticism from telecom and cable companies, and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill say Congress needs to step in to establish the FCC’s statutory authority.

Such a process will inevitably be contentious and probably much lengthier.

Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge, a consumer group that supports net neutrality, wrote on his blog Monday that the process “could easily develop into gridlock.”

“Telephone company-inspired letters are flowing down from Capitol Hill yet again attacking the FCC for daring to try to protect consumers and keep the Internet as a vital economic engine free from the clutches of telephone and cable companies,” he wrote.

The FCC had no comment, but Genachowski wrote earlier this month that should Congress take up legislation to clarify its authority, the agency “stands ready to be a resource.” But in the interim, he wrote, reclassifying broadband “would ensure that key initiatives to address pressing national challenges can move forward.”

Rockefeller and Waxman chair the Senate and House commerce committees, respectively, while Kerry and Boucher each chair subcommittees on communications, technology and the Internet.

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