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Congress Considering Rewrite Of Telecom Law

House and Senate leaders are looking to take up the contentious issue of whether to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, subjecting it to more regulation.

As America's broadband locomotive roars ahead at faster and faster speeds, its future increasingly seems to get bogged down in slowing legislative, judicial, and regulatory minutia. The latest development this week is an effort by four leading Democratic lawmakers to examine the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with an eye to rewriting it.

The lawmakers said they will start a process in June "to develop proposals" to update the 1996 legislation.

The effort is led on the Senate side by Commerce Committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D - W.Va.) and Sen. John Kerry (D - Mass.), who is chair of the Senate Communications, Technology, and the Internet subcommittee. The House initiative is headed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D - Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce committee, and Rep. Rick Boucher (D - Va.), chairman of the House Communications, Technology and the Internet subcommittee.

Also weighing in on the broadband issue this week were 74 Democratic lawmakers who said they are opposed to redefining broadband as a telecommunications service, a move that would give the Federal Communications Committee additional regulatory oversight of broadband.

The FCC has proposed that a light rewrite of existing regulations be implemented. That proposal has produced a firestorm of protest from major broadband providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon Communications and their lobbyists. There is a judicial backdrop, too. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has already weighed in on the issue, siding with Comcast against broadband regulation, and may have set a precedent for opposing additional regulation.

All sides pledge they are dedicated to bringing more robust broadband, more jobs, and more competition to the broadband universe. Worrying that the United States is falling behind other nations in broadband delivery, the FCC believes that its plan is the best one. Industry generally argues that Americans have been and will continue to get enhanced broadband via the existing free enterprise system.

The four lawmakers, led by Sen. Rockefeller and Rep. Waxman, have already indicated that they favor the FCC's proposal of reclassifying broadband as a "telecommunications service" under Title II of existing regulations. But now they are faced with 74 of their Democratic colleagues opposing that plan. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed a "third way" consisting of a light rewrite of regulations that, nonetheless, would involve more oversight than Internet providers want.

On the sidelines are Internet content providers like Google, Amazon, and Skype who favor so-called Net neutrality, and who fear that their content could be throttled.

One thing now seems certain: it will likely be a long, time-consuming, and arduous road before the issue is sorted out.

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