Blackburn: Let FCC Make First Move on Net Neutrality

House Communications Subcommittee chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) says she will give the FCC first crack at the Open Internet order before taking legislative steps.

That comes amidst some Democratic senators' and others declaring to fight for the Title II-based net neutrality rules, including any weakening by Congress, while other legislators and industry groups are pushing for a legislative solution.

In a press conference with reporters Tuesday on the priorities for the subcommittee, Blackburn—joined by Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), former chair of the subcommittee—was asked what she thought the timetable would be for a network neutrality bill. She said "let's let the FCC go in and do what they are able to do, make the first move on that. I think we allow them to take those first steps."

Asked how the FCC's and Congress' role in addressing the rules would dovetail, she said that after FCC chairman Ajit Pai takes whatever actions he takes, "the opportunity that we will have as a legislative body will be to take action that will move forward on some principles and definitions and make sure we don't end up in the situation again where we had agency overreach and an agency that decides they want to go off script…"

That is unlikely with the current FCC Republican majority, but one of the arguments for legislation is to look beyond that and prevent a definitional seesaw powered by changes in administrations.

Blackburn also said she was talking with her Senate counterparts about using the Congressional Review Act to overturn the FCC's broadband privacy rules, which are tied to the Title II authority the FCC deeded itself in that Open Internet order. "It is certainly an option," she said.

Blackburn said the subcommittee's initial focus would be on reauthorizing first the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, then the FCC.

She pointed out that NTIA's last reauthorization was in 1990 and the FCC's in 1992. She said that times have changed and it was time for a thorough review. She suggested she was not looking to micromanage them but more a focus on the "good housekeeping" and "housecleaning" components of the subcommittee's oversight. "My theory is to do it narrowly and set the parameters," make sure everyone understands the mission, then allow leadership to address specific issues.

She said oversight would focus on structures, rather than policies: "How agencies are formed. Making certain they are focused on their mission. That they are right-sized." She said getting that regulatory infrastructure right was job one.

She also said there would be a focus on broadband infrastructure, particularly getting it to unserved rural areas—Walden seconded that—which she said was important to her.

"When you have a district like mine," she said, "that has 19 counties, 16 of which are rural counties, lack of access to broadband hampers expanded educational opportunities and diminishes your opportunities for economic development and limits what you can do with telemedicine."

She said she hears from local officials that access to broadband is the infrastructure issue of the decade. But both said it would come with oversight and cost-benefit analysis to avoid the industry criticisms of the Barack Obama broadband stimulus plan, which was that there was waste, fraud and abuse, and overbuilding of incumbent providers. "Is it going to be a focus, yes," she said. "Are we always going to be in agreement with the FCC and the Department of Commerce, probably not. Will we find common ground? Yes. Are we going to do cost-benefit analysis on all of it? Absolutely. Are we going to be fiscally responsible? You can count on it."

Blackburn said encryption and cybersecurity would also be a focus, with Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), the subcommittee vice chair leading its work in those areas.

In fact, suggested Blackburn, since the President and new FCC chairman are already "hard at work," the subcommittee is going to need to be diligent, divide up the work, and do likewise, so she said various members would be stepping up to lead activity on different issues.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.