FCC to Proactively Read Communications Act to Tackle Emerging Telecom Issues

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By Bryce Baschuk

Feb. 10 — The Federal Communications Commission plans to interpret the Communications Act in order to proactively address the technological changes of the 21st century, said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Wheeler's comments, delivered in a Feb. 10 speech at the University of Colorado, came as the commission considers new rules for the Internet protocol (IP) transition, net neutrality and its forthcoming broadcast spectrum incentive auctions.

Wheeler says the FCC must be able to “apply its expert policy judgment.”

Wheeler said Congress should seek a “significant modification” of the Communications Act if the FCC is “thwarted in its ability to apply its expert policy judgment.” He acknowledged, however, that such an endeavor will likely take many years to complete and the commission has a responsibility to act now to ensure that certain values are preserved as network transitions occur.

A bipartisan, bicameral collection of lawmakers have increasingly expressed their interest in updating the laws that govern the nation's telecommunications marketplace. Last year Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman led the effort by launching a multi-year effort to rewrite the Communications Act.

‘Nimble' Regulatory Oversight

When Congress enacts new communications legislation the speed of Internet innovation “means that even a new Telecommunications Act will be out of date the moment it is signed,” Wheeler said. “The only way to deal with this reality is to have an expert agency capable of being as nimble as the innovators redefining technology and re-drawing the marketplace.”

“We have an obligation to act now with the principles that have been transmitted to us in the form of statutes, judicial and regulatory precedents, scholarship, and experience,” Wheeler said. “A central reason we must act now is that while the world is changing, certain values remain as critical as ever.”

Wheeler plans to unveil his proposal to preserve net neutrality principles in the coming days, he said. Industry stakeholders are eagerly awaiting the agency's forthcoming response to a Jan. 14 appeals court decision that overturned two of the commission's key net neutrality rules.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled Jan. 14 that the FCC's open Internet rules may not prohibit broadband Internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or discriminating against Internet content transmitted across their networks (Verizon Commc'ns Inc. v. FCC,D.C. Cir., No. 11-1355, 1/14/14). Wheeler has said the commission will “consider all available options,” including a legal appeal of the case or potentially reclassifying broadband Internet under Title II of the Communications Act.

Section 706 Authority

The court upheld the commission's authority under section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to encourage broadband deployment by removing barriers to infrastructure deployment and promoting competition, Wheeler said. As a result the FCC has the authority it needs to “provide what the public needs––open, competitive, safe, and accessible broadband networks,” Wheeler said. “Indeed, that we have authority is well-settled. What remains open is not jurisdiction, but rather the best path to securing the public interest.”

Going forward, the commission is “committed to transparent, inclusive processes, and our actions will be driven by the facts and the data,” Wheeler said. “And on all major issues, we will act when the record warrants and the public interest demands.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com