UPDATE: Rockefeller vows Congressional support for FCC on broadband
Update 3:32 p.m.: With comments from Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) urging FCC to reclassify broadband services.
Update 4:14 p.m.: Quote by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on how the federal court ruling raises question about portions of its national broadband plan.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said he would take up legislation to protect the authority of the Federal Communications Commission over broadband services, after a court ruling put the agency's position into flux.
"In the longer term, if there is a need to rewrite the law to provide consumers and the FCC and the industry with a new framework, I as chairman will take that task on," Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate commerce committee said during a hearing on the FCC's broadband plan Wednesday afternoon. "I think that is probably where we're going to end."
A federal appeals court sided last week with Comcast, which disagreed with sanctions put on it for slowing the BitTorrent application on its network. The court determined that the FCC didn't properly use its "ancillary authority" over broadband in its action against Comcast. That decision has thrown the future of the FCC into flux, with a growing debate over how the agency can proceed as a regulator of broadband service providers and create a so-called net neutrality policy that would prevent online discrimination such as that that Comcast did with BitTorrent.
Lawmakers all weighed in on the question of how the FCC would respond to the court decision. Some Democrats called for the agency to more clearly mark its authority over broadband by reclassifying the service as a telecom service. Republicans disagreed.
Ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) meanwhile cautioned the FCC against considering reclassifying broadband services as a telecom service. She didn't mention in her opening remarks whether she would support a congressional mandate that would clarify the FCC's authority to regulate broadband services.
"Without a directive from Congress and without a thorough analysis … the legitimacy of agency would be seriously compromised," Hutchison said.
Rockefeller's comments come after Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) assurances to the FCC that it can reclassify broadband services as a common carrier service that is clearly under the agency's control.
"Of course Congress has the opportunity to address this but before now and the end of the year, I don't think Congress is likely to do it," Dorgan said. "So I think we have to look at the FCC to do it because the FCC unraveled it in the first place."
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the sole witness at the hearing, said attorneys at the agency are still deliberating on how they would proceed after the federal appeals court decision.
"I haven't made a decision yet," Genachowski said, after one lawmaker asked his opinion of what the agency should do.
But he said the court decision raised questions about its ability to fulfill its objective to bring broadband services to rural areas through the $8 billion universal service fund.
"It potentially raises question in a number of areas, including universal service to rual areas, public saftey and cybersecuirty," Genachowski said. "That’s why it's important to make sure eveything we do has a solid legal foudnaiton."
For Rockefeller, the question of a federal agency's power to regulate broadband services is personal and the importance of broadband is personal.
Rockefeller said a tragedy at a mine in his home state in recent days was aggravated by the lack of cellphone service in the area, crippling communications for family members and others at the site.
And he credited Comcast for creating added complexity to the FCC's goal of fulfilling its broadband deployment goals because of its court case against the agency on a net neutrality sanction.
"A lot of people sitting in this room representing industry love deregulation. … There is a history of the recent FCC of non-action when a lot of action was needed. I want to say that this is a committee, as long as I'm chairman, that is here to protect consumers," Rockefeller said.
"Most of the rest of the world can take care of itself. Consumers can’t. People without cellphones can’t make phone calls to the mother of a deceased miner. That’s how I see my responsibility," he said.
April 14, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
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