Net neutrality, broadband access, and administrative transparency were all flagged as top issues facing the Federal Communications Commission at an oversight hearing today before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Net neutrality - or rules that would require Internet service providers to treat all applications, services and content alike - is likely to prove most contentious. Internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon oppose new rules, which they fear could hamper their ability to manage their network traffic.
Related litigation between the FCC and Comcast is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Comcast has challenged an FCC order that found its broadband network management practices were unlawful. Comcast and others argue the FCC lacks the authority to issue such an order.
Committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D Calif.) announced at the hearing that he would co-sponsor a net neutrality bill introduced by Rep. Ed Markey (D- Mass.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D Calif.), legislation that would seem to address the jurisdictional hole.
“Industry will benefit from clarity, consistency and predictability with regard to net neutrality," Waxman said. "I think that the time is right to formally establish, through legislation if required, the rules of the road with respect to net neutrality.”
But other members of the committee such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R Tenn.) were skeptical. "I am very weary of talk of efforts to increase regulation where there is no compelling reason to do so," she said. "I fear doing anything to thwart investment would have broad repercussions."
Telecom lawyer Glenn Manishin, a partner at Duane Morris who is following the issue closely, said he has observed “momentum from a policy standpoint from the new administration and its Congressional allies to codify and perhaps expand the FCC’s net neutrality principles. But in absence of clear legislation, there are some very significant legal issues regarding the FCC’s power to impose those regulations on otherwise unregulated Internet service providers.”
Chairman Julius Genachowski and his four fellow commissioners outlined other goals for the agency, touting a national plan to accelerate broadband deployment. "Broadband is our generation’s major infrastructure challenge," said Genachowski.
Members of the committee also called on the commissioners to bring greater transparency to the agency. “In the past, the FCC has operated if not in the dark, it’s certainly been very opaque,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney (D – Calif.).
Genachowski said he has appointed a special counsel for FCC reform charged with improving systems for data collection and analysis as well as licensing, comment and complaint filing, among other issues. “We are working towards the FCC becoming a model for excellence in government.”