Next Congress Will Tackle Telecommunications, Aides Predict

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By Kyle Daly

Dec. 2 — Writing net neutrality legislation and broadly updating the Communications Act will be major priorities in the next Congress, top Republican and Democratic congressional aides said Dec. 2.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) is “very interested” in working with Democrats to create legislation that would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to enforce looser net neutrality standards, David Quinalty, the committee's policy director, said at a Washington, D.C., panel discussion with other Capitol Hill staffers.

The FCC, meanwhile, is widely expected to roll back its existing net neutrality rules, passed on a party-line vote in 2015, during the next administration.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking members of the Senate committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee, respectively, are open to working with their GOP counterparts on net neutrality legislation, aides for those panels said. Pallone would just have to be sure that any bill provides a “good deal for consumers,” David Goldman, the House committee Democrats' chief counsel, said.

The FCC reclassified broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, the utility-style framework the agency has used for decades to regulate traditional phone service. Critics say it’s overly broad and could open the door to unanticipated regulations and rate caps.

That criticism will likely underpin any net neutrality bill coming out of the Republican-led 115th Congress. Overriding Title II reclassification will indeed be “front and center” for many lawmakers in the next Congress, David Redl, the House committee's chief counsel, said.

There’s also a strong possibility Congress will simply reverse a recent outgrowth of the FCC’s approach to net neutrality. Republican lawmakers may invoke the Congressional Review Act and simply overturn rules establishing customer privacy requirements for broadband providers, counting on President-elect Donald Trump not to veto their resolution, Quinalty and Redl said. They would have to act within 60 legislative days from the start of the next Congress.

The rules, adopted by the FCC in October, were made necessary by the Title II reclassification because the Federal Trade Commission, which had previously regulated broadband privacy, is prohibited by law from regulating common carriers.

Meanwhile, any new rules adopted by a Republican-led FCC, with or without congressional intervention, would likely continue prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or throttling legal online content, but would otherwise take a light regulatory touch.

Communications Act Update Back on the Table

Beyond net neutrality, there’s a renewed appetite in Congress for a broad update to the Communications Act of 1934, aides said. Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the outgoing Energy and Commerce chairman, and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who will take the gavel from Upton next year, spearheaded a 2013 effort to rewrite the Communications Act that failed to gain traction.

“It’s very clear that there’s a lot about the FCC and the Communications Act that no longer reflect the world we live in,” Redl said.

Quinalty said updating the statute is a “key priority” for Thune, but it's not clear if efforts would come as one single package that could take years to assemble or through a series of smaller bills that could, arguably, get drafted and passed more quickly. Congress took years to craft the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the last significant update to U.S. communications law.

Major elements of any update would include enhancing transparency and predictability at the FCC and asserting congressional oversight of the agency, Redl said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kyle Daly in Washington at kdaly@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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