WASHINGTON, Feb. 18, 2015 – Congressional Republicans are turning up the volume in their battle with Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler and his “net neutrality” proposal – a plan to keep the Internet free and open – in advance of a possible commission vote on the plan on Feb. 26.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune of South Dakota lambasted Wheeler, a former leader of cable and wireless trade groups, for his “radical” and “overreaching” proposal in one of several statements the South Dakota Republican has made in recent weeks.
“Chairman Wheeler’s proposal to regulate the Internet as a public utility is not about net neutrality – it is a power grab for the federal government by the chairman of a supposedly independent agency who finally succumbed to the bully tactics of political activists and the president himself,” Thune said in a press release.
Thune is one of several Republicans charging that Wheeler’s latest proposal is virtually President Barack Obama’s, which is understandable considering Wheeler, a Democrat appointed by Obama, announced a markedly less restrictive plan in May 2014 and only changed his proposal after Obama made his intentions on net neutrality clear in November.
His proposal, like Obama’s, is pro-net neutrality, which means it is designed to keep the Internet free and open. Internet access, separate from the Internet itself, is sold to consumers by massive Internet and wireless providers, like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T. Wheeler’s proposed rule would legally bar Internet providers from undermining net neutrality by offering paid prioritization, blocking Web content or speeding up or slowing down the Internet.
Most objectionable to the GOP is Wheeler’s intention to reclassify the Internet as a common utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934.
“The White House needs to get its hands off the FCC,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a statement. “The White House’s efforts to drag the Internet into 1930s regulations is a move that puts the FCC on the fast-lane to the federal courthouse.”
Under Title II, Internet providers would be subject to FCC regulation, just as existing telecommunications companies are today. That regulation includes a mandate that common carriers act “in the public interest” and charge fees and maintain practices that are “just and reasonable,” as decided by the Commission.
The FCC would also be able to order common Internet carriers to provide broadband coverage in designated, unserved rural and low-income areas under Title II’s universal service provisions. These provisions would help to expand broadband coverage to 55 million Americans — including over half of all rural Americans — who do not have advanced broadband access, according to the FCC. Common Internet carriers ordered by the Commission to provide extended broadband coverage may be eligible for Federal universal service support under the Act’s Provision of Universal Service.
Michael Romano, senior vice president of policy at NTCA (The Rural Broadband Association), said “all indications thus far are that universal service will remain a core public policy principle through any regulatory changes that result from the order.”
“NTCA has also long been in favor of sensible rules of the road that make sure all providers, big and small, work well with one another,” added Romano, “and it looks as if the order could take some steps toward this goal.”
Republicans recently demanded the FCC hand over the text of its private negotiations with the Obama Administration and the wording of Wheeler’s proposal in advance of the commission’s next scheduled meeting on Feb. 26, when the five member FCC, now dominated by three Democrats, is expected to vote on Wheeler's proposed rules.
Traditionally, the FCC chairman may send records of those talks to the agency’s other commissioners before a vote, but he would not ordinarily make the records public until after a vote is held. This time, the Republicans won’t be getting any special exception to that rule, said Wheeler. Senate Commerce Committee member Dean Heller, R-Nev., has introduced a bill that would force FCC to release the records.
“The FCC should be an open, transparent, and predictable agency -- no matter who is in charge,” said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the top Republican on Commerce’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee, in support of Heller’s Senate bill.
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