Telecom giant challenges FCC role in broadband

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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

One of the nation's biggest telecommunications providers urged the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday not to assert its authority over Internet services, a challenge that comes as the agency embarks on a 10-year effort to greatly expand broadband access across the country.

Verizon Communications said that the FCC's power over high-speed Internet services is "at best murky" and offered recommendations to Congress that could take away much of the agency's power.

Tom Tauke, Verizon's top lobbyist, urged lawmakers to rethink the way the government oversees broadband, arguing that the FCC should shift to more of an enforcement role -- like that of the Federal Trade Commission -- from its current status as a rule-making body.

"In my view, the current statute is badly out of date. Now is the time to focus on updating the law affecting the Internet," Tauke said in a speech before a tech policy forum in Washington. "To fulfill broadband's potential, it's time for Congress to take a fresh look at our nation's communications policy framework."

Tauke's comments echo recent questions raised about the FCC's jurisdiction over Internet services. Currently, the agency says it can oversee broadband providers as part of its supervision of other communications services. However, that power has been tested by a lawsuit filed against the FCC by cable giant Comcast that is before a federal appeals court.

There is a growing push within the agency to reclassify broadband as a common carrier service, meaning Internet service providers would be regulated like telephone companies. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told The Washington Post this month that the agency will continue to fight its case but that it would consider reclassification if the court determined the agency doesn't have jurisdiction over broadband.

But telecom and cable companies have balked at the idea of reclassification. On Wednesday, AT&T issued a statement after Tauke's speech, suggesting that Congress determine laws for Internet oversight.

"If there are any questions about the authority of the FCC in the Internet ecosystem, the proper answer is not for the FCC to get adventurous in interpreting its authority, as some are urging," said AT&T senior vice president Jim Cicconi.

An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment.

Law professors and analysts said that Congress would probably not take on the task of writing a new telecommunications law to overhaul the existing government framework for broadband oversight.

"This is an awfully big hill to climb for Congress this year," said Paul Gallant, an analyst at Concept Capital research. "But it is probably the beginning of a serious multi-year discussion about Congress changing the regulatory landscape for the tech sector."

The public interest group Free Press said Verizon's recommendations could hurt consumers, who would have a weaker FCC overseeing Internet service providers.

"This speech illustrates the incumbents' desire for a toothless, do-nothing regulator," said Josh Silver, director of Free Press. "After eight years of that, consumers are left with higher prices, lower speeds and ever-dwindling choices."

Tauke said that the government shouldn't be light on regulation and that other Internet-related companies should also be under scrutiny, such as Google and Yahoo, software makers and manufacturers of Internet-enabled devices.

He said that rule-making shouldn't be the focus on the government entity that oversees the Web, but that it should be focused on enforcement.

"Instead, we could structure a process that uses the innovative, flexible and technology-driven nature of the Internet to address issues as they arise," Tauke said.


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