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Broadband law rewrite planned for 2006

A top Republican politico says to expect a "comprehensive" proposal to overhaul U.S. telecommunications laws this month.

WASHINGTON--A senior Republican congressman on Wednesday said his committee hopes to propose a "comprehensive" overhaul of the nation's telecommunications laws--with an intensive focus on the explosion of the Internet--later this month.

"We really want to get a comprehensive telecom reform bill to the president's desk this year," Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a speech at an annual "state of the Net" conference here.

Politicians in both the House and the Senate have been exploring ways to update the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which has been criticized for its failure to account for the rapid expansion of the Internet. On the Senate side, John Ensign of Nevada and Jim DeMint of South Carolina have each introduced measures that take a relatively laissez-faire approach to broadband.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee has kicked off a series of hearings this year that are expected to lead to another reform bill, though Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska said Tuesday that "we're going to finish our hearings first."

Barton said he didn't want to wait for the Senate to act before moving forward on legislation. "We don't have that many legislative days this year, so it is time to stop talking, and it is time to start working," he said. Because 2006 is a congressional election year, the legislative body's schedule will likely be somewhat fractured.

Last fall, the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a 70-page draft proposal (click here for PDF) and held a lengthy hearing. It outlines rules for a broad set of technology services divided into three major categories: broadband Internet service providers, voice over Internet Protocol providers and broadband video providers.

Technology companies like Google and criticized that version, which they accused of failing to spell out a network neutrality mandate--that is, a requirement that companies that own broadband pipes don't favor certain content over others when transmitting it.

Barton gave no indication as to how that draft would change before its formal introduction on the House floor but said he was aiming to put a bill out for public review "very quickly." With respect to network neutrality in particular, he said, "it's pretty tough to determine what is right in my mind."

Barton also touched briefly on the committee's broader agenda, including plans to press ahead in the next few weeks on approving a for protection of computerized personal data. A spate of similar bills began wending their way through Congress last year in the wake of high-profile breaches at several large corporations, but none of them ever went to a full vote by both houses.