Congress releases draft broadband bill

House committee previews measure that would update 1996 law with provisions about broadband Internet and video services and VoIP.

Congress on Thursday took another step toward overhauling a telecommunications law to include provisions that account for technologies like broadband Internet and voice over Internet Protocol.

The U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee released a 77-page staff working draft (PDF file) and is now calling for comments from interested parties. According to a press release, Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who chairs the committee, has made the issue a "top priority" and is hoping to have a bill introduced this fall.

"The Telecommunications Act of 1996 spurred the development of telephone competition, but no one could have foreseen the magnitude of the challenges and opportunities that the Internet age has presented," Barton said in a statement. "New services shouldn't be hamstrung by old thinking and outdated regulations."

Features of the draft include:

•  Rules spanning broadband Internet transmission services, VoIP services and broadband video services. The draft defines, for regulatory purposes, broadband Internet transmission services--or BITS--as "a packet-switched service that is offered to the public," regardless of the equipment or protocol used. That puts DSL and cable providers on equal footing.

•  A federal framework for regulating BITS, VoIP and broadband video services: Neither the Federal Communications Commission nor states will have the power to regulate the "rates, charges, terms, or conditions" of any of the providers unless directed by federal law. All such services are subject to "exclusive federal jurisdiction" and must register with the FCC.

•  Guidance on Net neutrality: BITS, VoIP and broadband video services must not block their subscribers' access to any content or applications and must allow their subscribers to connect to their services with whichever devices they choose. But they're encouraged to provide protections against security threats and theft of their services.

•  Recourse for VoIP providers: They're expected to negotiate their own rates with telecommunications companies for use of their wires, but if negotiations fail, they can petition the FCC to mediate.

•  Requirements for access to 911 services: The FCC is in charge of deciding those rules "based on available industry technological and operational standards," and all VoIP providers must ensure that their subscribers have access to 911 and enhanced 911 services based on the FCC's action. Those who control the e911 infrastructure must grant access to VoIP providers at "just and reasonable" rates.

•  VoIP and universal service: The FCC must convene an inquiry into whether to compel VoIP providers to contribute to the Universal Service Fund, which currently pools fees from wireline, wireless, long-distance and some VoIP providers and uses them to subsidize services in rural areas.

•  A nod to municipal broadband: State and local governments are permitted to run their own BITS, VoIP and broadband video services, as long as they comply with the same regulations their private-sector counterparts do.

Comments already began trickling in as groups digested the draft. Gigi Sohn, president of the digital-rights advocacy nonprofit Public Knowledge, praised the "thoughtful draft" for its Net neutrality components and acknowledgment of municipal efforts.

Sohn said in a statement that her organization was still studying the document but was "pleased to see many of the pro-competitive features of the draft."

Big broadband providers reserved judgment on the draft's content but were quick to hail its release, which they said represents an important step toward a much-anticipated update of telecommunications law.

"It is important that Congress gets it right because the legislation will have a tremendous impact on broadband deployment, video competition and consumer choice, economic development, job growth, and America's international competitiveness," Peter B. Davidson, Verizon senior vice president for federal government relations, said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the committee as this process moves forward."

Jim Kohlenberger, executive director of the VON Coalition, which represents VoIP interests, said his organization applauded the committee's hard work and looked forward to massaging the draft "so that the regulatory net doesn't inadvertently catch some of the wrong fish."

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