July 31, 2014

Lobbyists, Hill Brawling Over Broadband

When Congress overhauled the nation’s telecommunications law in 1996, it happened only after an eight-year knock-down, drag-out battle among powerful stakeholders, including the cable and phone companies.

Today, another telecommunications lobbying slugfest looms with even more sharp-elbowed industry players, as lawmakers and federal agencies grapple with how to oversee the growing use of broadband technology.

Last week, a federal appeals court likely ensured a battle on the Hill over the matter when it issued a decision in favor of Comcast that curbed the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to crack down on companies that slow certain Web traffic.

“Without a doubt the FCC needs to have authority to keep the Internet open,” said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a key Congressional player as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

The ruling also unleashed a torrent of criticism from Internet advocacy groups, which called for the FCC to clarify its jurisdiction over high-speed Internet providers.

This week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to address how the agency will respond to the court ruling as well as discuss his agency’s recently unveiled national broadband plan when he testifies Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. FCC officials already have indicated the ruling will affect how they do their job and their ability to usher in the broadband plan.

That plan is the FCC’s response to a host of telecom issues that the Internet age has spawned, including whether the federal government should regulate broadband speed, how to finance the expansion of the technology into rural and poor areas, how to deal with security and how to better equip emergency providers with online assistance.

As a result, the number of companies, firms and groups registered as federal lobbyists that listed broadband as an issue leapt from seven in 2000 to 324 in 2009, according to a CQ MoneyLine analysis of disclosure filings with Congress.

Aside from the typical telecommunications giants and high-tech firms, other entities such as hospitals, cities and universities have jumped on the broadband lobbying bandwagon.

Unusual Suspects

The American Association of Law Libraries, the American Corn Growers Association, the California Association of Realtors and cities such as Baltimore, Baton Rouge, La., and Boise, Idaho, are among those who listed broadband as an issue last year, according to their lobbying filings.

“It is certainly true that broadband touches our lives in many more places,” said James Assey, executive vice president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Assey, who formerly served as senior Democratic counsel to the Senate Commerce panel, attributed the success of broadband to the philosophy of “regulatory humility” shown by the government.

But that view is likely to be increasingly tested as Congress considers how to implement the FCC’s broadband plan.

The fight pits old-guard telecommunications giants, with their deep and well-connected lobbying teams, against the upstart high-tech operations such as Google and Yahoo, which have smaller Washington, D.C., offices but nonetheless have influential friends on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

“There’s nothing that happens in this business without a fight,” said Art Brodsky, spokesman for Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that promotes issues such as net neutrality, the principle that carriers must give equal access to Internet content.

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