Sen. Thune: Time for Informed Communications Law Reforms

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, signaled that he, like the Republican leaders in the House Energy & Commerce Committee, is committed to rewriting communications law. He also signaled that there was interest in both chambers to use the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) to achieve some video reforms.

"[S]ome people may think a Communications Act update is an impossible task in today’s political environment and that Congress should not even bother to try," he said in a speech to the Free State Foundation. "I reject that pessimistic view. The voters did not send us to Washington, D.C. to sit on our hands and resign ourselves to failure. They sent us here to make a difference."

On the House side, the Energy & Commerce leadership are already in the midst of a fact-finding tour on a rewrite, with plans to wade into the task next year.

But Thune also said that before Congress can decide which laws need to be updated and which jettisoned, it must understand where the U.S. stands compared to the rest of the world, which is not behind as many assert, he said, particularly in the area of broadband deployment, where he says the U.S. "outshines" Europe.

And "while some pro-regulatory advocates claim our communications sector is dominated by monopolies and duopolies," he said, "the evidence in the marketplace doesn’t support that view."

To base communications law reforms on an inaccurate picture, he says, is "central to the efforts of pro-regulatory advocates who claim more government intervention into the online world is needed to fix a 'broken system.'...We should instead be celebrating the accomplishments of our communications, technology, and Internet industries and looking for ways to build upon this and drive further economic growth."

One thing that rewrite should not include is applying Title II regs to the Internet, he said, but he is not high on network neutrality rules buttressed with other FCC authority and argues that the FCC should hold off and let Congress weigh in.

"Neither Title II nor section 706 of the Telecom Act are appropriate tools to regulate the Internet," he said. "The former is outdated and politically corrosive.  The latter is legally untested and potentially far too broad.  When Congress wrote both provisions, it never expected or intended for either to apply to a dynamic and competitive broadband marketplace.  Because of this, any Internet regulations issued by the FCC based on either statute will be tied up in courts for years, thus creating more uncertainty for businesses and end users, not less."

"The only way to provide the certainty that ISPs, edge providers, content publishers, and end users need and want is for Congress to legislate.  My colleagues and I need to roll up our sleeves and figure out how best to promote an open, competitive, and free Internet."

He did not say how that could be accomplished, but volunteered to try.

Turning to STELA for some more short-term communications reg reform, Thune said that he was working with Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W.Va.) on a version of the bill. The House version includes some retrans related reforms and other cable-friendly elements, and it sounds like the Senate version could reflect some of those, or at least that is Thune's hope.

"While it is too soon to say what the final satellite TV bill will include," he said, "it seems clear that there is interest in both chambers on updating our video laws, many of which were written in 1992 as part of the Cable Act....With so much having changed in the video marketplace, now is a good time for Congress to examine our laws to determine whether they are still relevant and whether they provide the foundation for continued video innovation and consumer choice."

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.