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Congress set to review 1996 Communications Act

Two top Democratic legislators have announced they will begin a process to modernize telecommunications laws that were last overhauled in 1996 but barely mention the Internet.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-WV, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Rep Henry A. Waxman, D-CA, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said in a joint statement that they would hold meetings beginning this month to examine how the Communications Act meets the current needs of consumers, the telecom industry and the FCC.

The issue was highlighted in April when a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC had overstepped its authority in applying a portion of the Communications Act to an Internet service provider. In response, the FCC announced a plan to reclassify broadband Internet service, which is now lightly regulated as an information service.

Under the change, broadband service would be classified as a telecommunications service, similar to basic telephone service, and would therefore come under more scrutiny by the commission. The reclassification would give the FCC the authority to implement portions of its recently released National Broadband Plan, as well as to enforce net neutrality, a concept that Internet service providers must provide consumers with equal access to all types of content and applications.

Internet service providers have generally opposed the proposed reclassification, arguing that the FCC has the authority it needs to ensure fair competition among Internet service providers. They also are wary because the reclassification could give the FCC the authority to regulate rates charged to customers.

James Cicconi, a senior executive vice president at AT&T, said the company welcomed the congressional review. “The FCC’s legal authority should be decided by the Congress itself, and not by applying to the Internet a set of onerous rules designed for a different technology, a different situation and a different era,” he said.

Consumer groups also hailed the efforts by the two Democrats. “The world has changed considerably since 1996,” said Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, a public interest group.

Any overhaul of communications law is likely to take some time. Congress has little time left on this session’s calendar. It took more than five years to produce the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which itself was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law since the Communications Act of 1934.