Bill launched to overhaul broadband rules

Politicians say it's time to update the 1996 Telecommunications Act and other laws to deregulate broadband and wireless links.

A debate over upgrading U.S. telecommunications laws for the digital era began in earnest Wednesday with a proposal aimed at substantially deregulating broadband, satellite and cell phone services.

Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, introduced a bill that reopens a national dispute that has been simmering, but not fully engaged, since the 1996 Telecommunications Act was enacted. The drafters of the law did not envision the explosive growth of the Internet, wireless and broadband technologies over the last decade.

Ensign's 72-page measure takes a broadly pro-business approach. It says, for instance, that local governments wishing to provide broadband service to residents must allow an "open bidding process" in which private companies may participate. Also, companies such as Verizon Communications that would like to provide video, but have been stymied by the need to obtain permission from local governments, would receive a regulatory reprieve.

"We must not allow government regulations to be an anchor on the advance of technology if we want America to lead the world in the information age," Ensign said when introducing the bill. It "will create jobs, stimulate the economy and increase consumer choice," he added.

Underlying Congress' revamping of the 1996 law, which could take a year to complete, are competing philosophies of how the government should treat telecommunications providers. Are consumers better served through price-setting by regulators--or by letting competition flourish? Is it wiser to mandate that companies permit rivals to use their networks, or will that discourage investment in fiber links?

Ensign's bill says that neither state regulators nor the Federal Communications Commission may set rates and prices for communications service. It also says they may not require fiber owners to provide their rivals with access to facilities. Direct-to-home satellite service would also be immune from price regulation.

While his proposal, called the Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act, is likely to meet opposition from liberal groups, it won applause from Verizon.

"We applaud Sen. Ensign for introducing legislation to bring our communications laws into the 21st century...This bill recognizes that the world has changed and consumer-driven markets work better than those managed by the government," Verizon said in a statement.

But the bill is not entirely laissez-faire. It says that telephone companies must continue to provide access to their copper wires "on commercially reasonable" terms, and broadband providers "shall not willfully" block Web sites unless the restrictions are in place because of bandwidth limits. Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, service also can't be blocked--a problem that's already arisen a few times.

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