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Hill Players Eye Net-Neutrality Law

WASHINGTON — There could yet be hope for a legislative solution to network-neutrality rules that preserve the basic “protections” sought by the FCC, but without the Title II reclassification cable operators and other Internet-service providers adamantly oppose.

In hearings on broadband deployment and in the re-nomination hearing for Democratic Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel, members of both parties signaled such a solution would be preferable to years-long litigation over regulating broadband Internet service as a common-carrier service under Title II of the Communications Act.

Oral argument in the legal challenge is set for Dec. 4, but a three-judge panel decision won’t come until sometime next year, which can be appealed to the full court, or the Supreme Court, or both.

“We’ve come a long way, baby,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said at Rosenworcel’s hearing in referring to his talks with Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.). “We’re narrowing the differences,” said Nelson of those negotiations, thanking Thune for his willingness to “dive in.”

Thune said that it would be “great” if they could get to the finish line on a bill and that he was all for “clarity and clear rules.”

Elsewhere, the Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee attached a rider to a FCC appropriations bill that would outright block the agency’s enforcement of the rules, which went into effect June 12. But the amendment is almost certain to be stripped out of a final bill if it expects to make it past President Obama, who pushed for the rules.

Republicans have already drafted a net-neutrality bill, but the measure would take some of the teeth out of the Section 706 authority the FCC has used to try and buttress net-neutrality rules. Section 706 of the 1996 Telecom Act allows the FCC to determine whether “advanced telecommunications capability” is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.

Republicans have signaled they might be able to drop the Section 706-related language for the sake of a bill that would reverse the Title II reclassification, saying explicitly that common-carrier regulations could not be applied to the Internet.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the Energy & Commerce Committee, appeared to concede it was time to come to a legislative meeting of the minds.

“We are no longer debating whether there should be net-neutrality rules, but instead, how to best put them into place,” he said at a hearing two weeks ago.

The Information Technology and Innovation Council, which has a board that includes some major computer companies and legislative honorary members, also two weeks ago proposed a “grand bargain” bill that would provide legislative underpinning for open Internet rules, while allowing for some paid prioritization and funding of broadband deployment programs.