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Washington Debates Broadband Plan

Lawmakers and lobbyists are urging the FCC to decide whether broadband should be classified as a telecommunications service or an information service.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski continued sitting firmly on the broadband fence Thursday even as Washington lawmakers and lobbyists urged him to jump to one side or the other -- the two sides being the telephone regulation side or the more deregulated information services side.

Genachowski told a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday that the commission's lawyers were examining options. He said, "I haven't made a decision yet."

The hotly debated issue is equally important to telecommunications companies like AT&T that support classifying broadband services as information services, and to companies like Google and Skype that would like to see broadband classified as telecommunications services.

The issue is particularly important for rural areas, which have been shortchanged in broadband access by many carriers, which have rolled out broadband in easy-to-install urban and suburban areas, but not as much in rural regions. Genachowski cited not only rural service as important for broadband but also public safety and cybersecurity networks.

The issue gained new urgency after a federal appeals court ruled recently against the FCC in net neutrality litigation with Comcast, suddenly placing into question FCC jurisdiction over some aspects of broadband. However, observers believe the FCC will still be able to control much of the nationwide deployment of broadband that it seeks.

A myriad of solutions has been proposed by carriers and Internet companies as well as by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Generally, Democratic Party lawmakers have suggested that Internet access be reclassified as a "telecommunications" service to place the services under more FCC oversight while Republicans generally favor the "information services" classification.

Yet another approach was presented Wednesday by Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D. W.Va.) who suggested new legislation is needed to deal with the issue. "In the longer term, if there is a need to rewrite the law to provide consumers and the FCC and the industry with a new framework, I as chairman [of the Senate Commerce Committee] will take that task on," said Rockefeller.

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