Barton Calls for a Telecom-Law Overhaul

Washington— House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) wants a top-to-bottom overhaul of telecommunications law, saying Internet technology and broadband distribution require an entirely new regulatory model.

“I believe that the best thing to do is just start from scratch,” Barton said last Tuesday. “The broadband age is such that it doesn’t really fit easily into any of the existing categories and so we probably ought to just start over.”

Lawmakers are under pressure to craft a new law because current policies that apply different rules to cable and phone companies clash with the digital convergence of voice, video and data services over a single high-speed data platform.

Although cable’s high-speed Internet service is lightly regulated, major phone companies are required to provide access to competing Internet-service providers based on continued enforcement of rules that trace to the monopoly phone era.

Congress last revamped telecommunications law in 1996, on the eve of the Internet boom.

Barton’s sweeping approach represents a threat to the cable industry, which supports only limited changes to current law based on concerns that expansive proposals would introduce uncertainty into the market, especially among cable’s financial backers.

Barton, addressing the Federal Communications Bar Association, said it was possible that Congress might decide just to tinker with current law.

“Honestly, I just don’t think that works. I’m not saying we can’t do it that way,” Barton said.

Barton said he is negotiating legislative details with Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.). A draft bill should be ready in a few weeks, he said.

“We’d like to move it through the committee sometime this summer and get it ready to go to the Senate before the August break,” Barton said. “That’s a very aggressive timetable and it’s a big, big issue.”

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has said technology has put pressure on telecommunications law but he is uncertain if changes need to be made.

“I can’t tell you that we want to replace it, or amend it or what we want to do,” Stevens said last month. “I have no firm fixed view of what has to be done. We just know that there’s new technology coming and that the '96 act has already sort of become outmoded in the nine years that’s passed.”