In a far-ranging oversight hearing that ran the gamut of issues facing the Federal Communications Commission, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman announced his intention to sign on as a co-sponsor of a Net neutrality bill introduced in August, signaling that the long-debated issue could again come to a head as Congress settles in to a busy fall season.
“Industry will benefit from clarity, consistency and predictability with regard to net neutrality,” Waxman (D-Calif.) said this morning. “I think that the time is right to formally establish, through legislation if required, the rules of the road with respect to Net neutrality.”
As the lawmakers made their opening remarks during the hearing, it became clear that any Net neutrality debate this fall will retain the partisan character that has derailed several previous attempts to write the principle into law. Several Republicans reiterated their opposition to Net neutrality, which Missouri’s Roy Blunt called “a topic that the definition always seems to change.”
The bill Waxman pledged to support was brought forward by Democrats Ed Markey of Massachusetts and California’s Anna Eshoo.
But the subject of the hearing was oversight of the FCC, an agency that Democrats and Republicans alike said was in need of reform.
Julius Genachowski, a long-time friend of President Obama nominated to chair the commission in March, said he had made reform a top priority, designating a panel within the agency to work with staff and develop specific recommendations on how to make the FCC more open and efficient.
Genachowski pointed to the ongoing series of workshops the FCC has been conducting as it works toward delivering a national broadband plan to Congress in February. Those workshops are open to the public and available online via Webcast, and next week the FCC will begin hosting field hearings on the subject.
“We have been working hard on broadband,” Genachowski said. “In developing the national broadband plan, the FCC is conducting a data-driven process with unparalleled opportunities for public participation.”
Genachowski has also overseen the launch of a Web site, blog and other new media overtures to more effectively communicate with the public.
Asked what Congress could do to help the agency reform its internal operations, Commissioner Copps appealed to the lawmakers to revisit the 1976 Sunshine Act, which, among other things, prohibited more than two commissioners from meeting behind closed doors.
“If you could only talk to one member of the committee,” Copps told Florida’s Cliff Stearns, “you’d be in one hell of a fix.”
The broadband plan, mandated by the economic stimulus package enacted in February, figures to touch on a host of issues that came up in this morning’s hearing.
Genachowski said he favored the idea of reforming the Universal Service Fund, which is used to subsidize phone service to low-income Americans, to include broadband.
[cob:Special_Report]California Democrat Doris Matsui said she is planning to introduce legislation that would effect USF reform to include Internet service, an issue that has been kicking around the FCC for at least a decade.
With wireless services becoming a bigger part of the broadband equation, Genachowski said he is looking to include progressive spectrum policies in the list of recommendations in the broadband plan.
“We’re facing a real demand crunch when it comes to spectrum,” he said, voicing support for bills that have been introduced in the Senate and House calling for a thorough inventory of the nation’s airwaves in the public and private sector.