House Leaders Propose Telecom Law Rewrite

Rewrite of Telecommunications Act could reshape Internet, cable, TV sectors.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013.
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Two top Republican lawmakers said they will launch a "multi-year process" to rewrite the Telecommunications Act, which will likely increase lobbying efforts on how to reshape American communications for an Internet economy.

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The proposal to rewrite America's communications laws, which were last updated in 1996, was announced during a Google Hangout video message Tuesday by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the communications and technology subcommittee.

"We are launching a multi-year effort to examine our nation's communications laws and update them for the Internet era," Upton said. "Throughout the recent economic downturn and recovery the communications and technology sectors have remained stalwarts of our national economy, providing services that consumers demand while investing, innovating and producing the high-quality jobs that all Americans strive for."

Limiting the authority of the Federal Communications Commission will also likely be a major goal of lobbyists and some House Republicans during a process to rewrite the communications law. Walden has introduced several bills to limit the oversight powers of the FCC. The FCC's authority comes from the 1996 version of the law, which has been the only update of U.S. communications law since 1934.

"A lot has happened since the last update," Walden said, noting the information marketplace has changed as new Internet companies have been created. "There is a lot that has changed in the legal world."

A key factor in any telecom law rewrite will be the outcome of a lawsuit between Verizon and the FCC in U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court, which may be decided in January or February. Verizon sued the FCC in January 2011 because of its rules which require Internet service providers to deliver all Web content equally in a practice known as net neutrality. In the suit, Verizon argued the order uses outdated authority intended for regulation of land line phones. Advocates of net neutrality, including the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute think tank, argue the rule will maintain competition in the Internet industry.

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Walden noted that numerous industries will have an axe to grind in this debate and he invited them to reach out to Congress in the coming months about "what is fair and what is not."

Broadcasters may push for the telecom law to address controversies on retransmission fees cable providers pay for the right to rebroadcast TV shows. Networks rely on that lucrative practice, but it is being disrupted by digital video company Aereo, which broadcasts TV programs without paying those fees.

The proposal to rewrite the communications law was applauded by Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters trade association and former Republican senator from Oregon.

"There can be little doubt that in this multichannel, multi-platform communications world, local broadcasting remains the essential and indispensable programming source in every American community," Smith said. "We look forward to working with Chairmen Upton and Walden and other members of the Energy and Commerce committee as they consider telecom legislation that sustains a robust future for local broadcasting."

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