Broadband providers responded negatively to the release of a Federal Communications Commission Notice of Inquiry Thursday that seeks comments on a new legal framework for governing broadband access. The goal is to correct a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals that cast doubt on whether the FCC has authority to regulate broadband as it is currently classified.
Among other things, the FCC is considering whether to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, which would give the commission the regulatory authority it needs to fully implement its national broadband plan. However, AT&T Senior Executive Vice President Jim Cicconi called the proposal "troubling and, in many respects, unsettling."
Cicconi believes the proposal will create investment uncertainty at a time when certainty is most needed, damage jobs in a period of far-too-high unemployment, and even undermine the FCC's own goals. "AT&T continues to feel congressional action is far preferable, and far less risky to jobs and investment," Cicconi wrote in a blog.
Searching for a Third Way
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said he fully supports a congressional effort to update the Communications Act in a way that would establish a broadband framework that promotes investment and innovation, fosters competition, and empowers consumers. In view of the appeals court decision, however, he said the FCC has an obligation to move forward with an open, constructive public-comment inquiry. "The congressional and FCC processes are complementary," Genachowski said.
He also observed that the FCC's proposals include a "third way" that would avoid the extremes of either forcing service providers to conform with the FCC's legacy phone regulations or eliminate FCC oversight of broadband.
"It's not hard to understand why companies subject to an agency's oversight would prefer no oversight at all if they had the chance," Genachowski said. "But a system of checks and balances in the communications sector has served our country well for many decades."
Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen told The Washington Post Thursday that the broadband provider was "concerned about unjustified regulation." However, Cohen characterized Genachowski's comments about seeking a balanced approach as "a rational next step as all stakeholders continue to work together to keep the Internet ecosystem growing and open."
Congressional Action Preferred
Verizon Executive Vice President Tom Tauke said reclassifying broadband as a telecom service would have severe and long-lasting "negative consequences" for online users and the Internet ecosystem. "Rather than attempting to make the new world of broadband fit into the regulatory scheme of the old telephone world, the FCC should acknowledge that this is an issue Congress should address," Tauke said.
Nearly 300 members of Congress have already signed letters to the FCC, warning against reclassification and expressing support for congressional action, Tauke noted. "We will continue to work with the Congress, the FCC, and other interested parties to resolve these issues in a manner that encourages investment, innovation, jobs and the best possible online experience for users," Tauke said.
AT&T said regulating broadband networks virtually end-to-end under a regulatory structure devised in 1934 for monopoly telephone networks would be impossible to justify on either a policy or legal basis. The FCC has also failed to articulate any legal theory under which it would be able to proceed with such a reclassification, Cicconi wrote.
"We remain confident that if the FCC persists in its course -- and we truly hope it does not -- the courts will surely overturn their action," Cicconi wrote. And he added that AT&T is "ready to work with the FCC on narrow, targeted authority for the FCC to ensure today's Internet openness is preserved."