Democrats Begin Process to Update 1996 Communications Act

WASHINGTON: A group of Democrats on Capitol Hill are moving to update the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller and California’s Rep. Henry Waxman, both chairman of their respective Commerce Committees, said they and their party colleagues intended to “start a process to develop proposals to update the Communications Act. As the first step, they will invite stakeholders to participate in a series of bipartisan, issue-focused meetings beginning in June. A list of topics for discussion and details about this process will be forthcoming.”

Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts participated in the statement, released yesterday.

The move is being interpreted as a response to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s intention to reclassify broadband service to give the commission greater oversight. Current telecom law has little to say about the Internet, since it was last revised before the medium burgeoned. Genachowski brought up reclassification after a federal court struck down the FCC’s order stopping Comcast from throttling traffic on its broadband network. (See “Comcast Strikes a Blow Against Net Neutrality.”)

Waxman and Rockefeller wrote a letter to Genachowski indicating they believed the commission to have the authority to change broadband’s legal classification. However, they said the commission “should consider all viable options” with regard to Internet regulation. “This includes a change in classification, provided that doing so entails a light regulatory touch, with appropriate use of forbearance authority.”

Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge, a vociferous opponent of throttling, welcomed a telecom law rewrite. “The world has changed considerably since 1996, and Congress should be looking at how the law should accommodate today’s technology and marketplace.”

The 1996 Telecommunications Act revised the original written in 1934 and took five years go complete. Little is expected to happen with regard to reform during the current session of Congress.
-- Deborah D. McAdams