House Approves Rate Reg-Blocking Bill

The House voted along party lines (Republicans for, Democrats against) to approve H.R. 2666, the No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act, sponsored by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), which would prevent the FCC from regulating the monthly rates of broadband service, or potentially after-the-fact via its enforcement authority.

Two Democratic-backed amendments were rejected. One—on an unrelated issue—would have insured the FCC was not prevented from requiring machine readable uploads of TV and radio station, cable and satellite public files. The other would have made clear that the FCC would still have to regulate in the public interest and necessity—a way to make sure the FCC could investigate data caps, pay-for-privacy practices and other things that affect rates.

A third Democratic amendment, which would have "preserve[d] the FCC's authority to accelerate the deployment of broadband internet access service to low-income consumers," was not offered.

The bill's passage came when a Democratic legislative gambit was rejected—as not germane—that would have instructed the House to consider the Republican budget immediately after voting on the FCC bill. Democrats don't like the budget but want the Republicans to have to present it so they could take aim at what Senate Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has called a "road to ruin" budget.

H.R. 2666 now moves to the Senate, where even if it were approved, the President has signaled he will veto it.

House Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) made it clear during debate that one of the things the bill was aimed at preventing was the potential regulation of zero data plans, which the FCC is eyeing under its net neutrality general conduct standard.

He pointed to T-Mobile's Binge On as an example of a pro-competitive, pro-consumer, innovative offering the FCC's authority to regulate under the Open Internet order was threatening.

During the debate, Kinzinger said he simply wanted to make sure that the FCC does not have the power to regulate rates, before or after the fact, saying "we are just taking back a little power from the FCC," which is what Congress is empowered to do.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the subcommittee, said that as a representative of Silicon Valley, she knew something about innovation and that the bill was, instead, about gutting the FCC's authority to protect consumers. "This bill in its broadness is an attack on consumers and net neutrality rules," she said.

But Eshoo summed it up when she talked about the debate being, at its heart, not about the bill per se—particularly since the bill is unlikely ever to become law—but the fundamental difference between the parties over network neutrality. Democrats see it as a necessary protection, Republicans as a regulatory overreach.

House Democrats and FCC chairman Tom Wheeler argue the bill is too broad and would sweep away FCC authority under its Open Internet rules to regulate blocking or degrading or paid prioritization, since they all implicate rates, essentially gutting the Open Internet order.

Republicans say they are simply trying to prevent rate regs, both before and after the fact.

Wheeler had initially said he supported the underlying theme of preventing broadband rate regulations but had since clarified in a letter that he was talking specifically about Congress codifying the FCC's Open Internet order forbearance of ex ante (before the fact) rate regulations, not other authorities like preventing anti-competitive paid prioritization or throttling.

“Today’s legislation, H.R. 2666, is needed to ensure that the Obama Administration sticks to their initial promise of not regulating broadband rates," said Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) following the vote. "Although [FCC] Chairman Wheeler has publicly declared, time and time again, that the FCC will not regulate rates, there is too much at stake to take a chance.”

"Today the House of Representatives passed common-sense legislation to stop the Federal Communications Commission from regulating broadband Internet access rates," said FCc Commissioner Ajit Pai. "This bipartisan measure codifies what President Obama told the FCC to do in 2014 and what Chairman Wheeler promised to do in 2015. I hope it will soon become the law of the land."

“We thank the House for today's action and hope the Senate will follow suit," said CTIA following the bill's passage. There is broad agreement that 20th century-style rate regulation is unnecessary in the highly competitive market for wireless broadband service. Enactment of Representative Kinzinger's bill will alleviate some the risk to competition and investment created by the FCC's Open Internet Order and in so doing, restore the certainty necessary for providers to increase their investment in new broadband infrastructure."

"ACA is very pleased the House voted to approve the 'No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act' sponsored by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Il.), who deserves high praise for identifying and advancing this issue in the House. ACA is hopeful the Senate will soon pass this bill, and the White House will likewise see the wisdom in signing it into law," said American Cable Association President Matt Polka.  

"A stable regulatory framework that excludes price controls spurs greater investment in broadband networks designed to satisfy consumer demand for faster Internet speeds and more reliable service needed to enjoy streaming services such as those offered by Netflix, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat."

“CenturyLink applauds the House of Representatives, and Congressman Adam Kinzinger in particular, for passing legislation that prohibits the FCC from imposing rate regulation on Internet access," said CenturyLink VP David BArtlett. "We’re surprised that there’s any opposition to this bill given that the administration has stated on multiple occasions that it is not interested in regulating broadband prices. Rate regulation is counter to innovation and market evolution and would harm broadband infrastructure investment, especially in rural markets.”

But Free Press, which strongly opposed the bill as an assault on the FCC's open Internet order, wasn't doing any applauding or thanking.

“Don’t believe a word the House Majority leadership says about this bill," said Free Press Action Fund policy director Matt Wood. "It’s really about giving massive broadband providers the ability to gouge Internet users with impunity. And it comes at a time when American Internet users are paying far too much in markets where there are few if any choices for high-speed access, and when the digital divide is only getting wider.

“Americans need relief from monopoly abuses, not more handouts to powerful companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. Representative Kinzinger’s legislation is a classic congressional head fake. It claims to have one aim — preventing the FCC from setting prices — while actually preventing the agency from protecting consumers or stopping cable monopolies from engaging in unreasonable practices.

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.