Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said Wednesday that he is considering a net neutrality plan that would prevent Internet providers from restricting content, but would give them flexibility to manage their networks.
With the Federal Communications Commission chief signaling that he wants to take up net neutrality rules this month, an already intense lobbying campaign by telecommunications giants, high-tech firms and open Internet advocates is sure to become even more feverish.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced his intention Wednesday to consider a plan that would prevent Internet providers from restricting content but would still give broadband providers flexibility to manage their networks and base pricing for services on usage.
The chairman’s announcement followed high-level lobbying from key parties, including the top lobbyists and chief executives of AT&T Inc. and Verizon, who spoke with Genachowski and his top aides in recent days. Interested parties have also submitted comments to the commission, including Allbritton Communications, which owns local television stations WLJA and News Channel 8, as well as Politico and TBD.com, a local website.
The various stakeholders will now try to shape the regulations, which the commission is expected to consider at its Dec. 21 meeting. Interested parties cannot directly lobby the commission within a week of the meeting, but they can still engage in other forms of advocacy, such as advertising.
“Lobbying, visiting, e-mailing, you name it. There will be lots of people making their views known to the FCC,” said Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, an Internet advocacy group.
Public Knowledge and other open-Internet advocates said the blueprint presented by Genachowski was still too weak, arguing it does not sufficiently address oversight of wireless providers or deal with the legal impediments to regulating the Internet.
With the commission’s two Republican members opposing the regulations, much of the focus will be on two Democratic members, whose support along with Genachowski’s will be needed if the measure is to be approved.
The FCC chairman based his proposal on compromise legislation brokered by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in September. That plan won the approval of high-tech industry players, as well as AT&T and Verizon.
But House Republicans refused to consider the matter and have indicated they will fight any attempt to regulate the Internet when they assume control of the chamber next year. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the top Republican on the panel’s Internet subcommittee, sent a letter to the FCC chairman Wednesday questioning his legal authority to impose net neutrality rules.
While officials with the telecommunications companies said they preferred that Congress deal with the issue, they indicated that they would work with the FCC. “We are pleased that the FCC appears to be embracing a compromise solution that is sensitive to the dynamics of investment in a difficult economy and appears to avoid over-regulation,” Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior vice president of external and legislative affairs, said in a statement.
A statement by Tom Tauke, Verizon’s executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communication, urged the commissioners “to recognize the limitations of the current statute and the rapidly changing conditions in the marketplace and make any rules it adopts interim, rather than specific.” Verizon has said it wants a two-year sunset provision in any rule.
Comcast, which recently won a federal lawsuit in which it questioned the FCC’s authority to impose net neutrality rules, supported the chairman’s plan.
“We believe Chairman Genachowski’s proposal strikes us as a workable balance between the needs of the marketplace and the certainty that carefully-crafted and limited rules can provide to ensure that Internet freedom and openness are preserved,” Comcast Vice President David Cohen said.
IBM also gave its support to the proposal. “Today’s announcement by the FCC represents a prudent and balanced approach to managing the growing volume of traffic on the Internet,” Christopher Padilla, IBM’s vice president for government programs, said in a statement.
However, Free Press, an open Internet advocacy group, slammed the proposal in a press release headlined “Is the FCC Peddling Fake Net Neutrality?”
Officials from trade associations, companies and advocacy groups have been in regular contact with FEC commissioners and staffers to try and influence the outcome since the beginning of November.
AT&T officials reported 10 contacts with commission officials since the beginning of November, according to FCC records, including a discussion Sunday between Cicconi; Robert Quinn, the company’s chief privacy officer and senior vice president of federal regulatory; Genachowski’s chief of staff, Edward Lazarus; and Josh Gottheimer, the chairman’s senior counselor.
AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson had a phone conversation Nov. 23 with Genachowski to discuss the issue, the records show.
Verizon’s Tauke spoke with Lazarus by phone Monday, and Verizon Chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg had a phone conversation on Nov. 24 with Genachowski, according to FCC records.
Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said her company did its lobbying through the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. The trade association’s president, Kyle McSlarrow, discussed the issue with Lazarus on Nov. 22.
Bruce Mehlman, a GOP lobbyist, said it is not surprising that industry officials are making their case before the FCC.
“When a legislative agency has that much power over your business, you make it a priority to make sure they hear your side of the story,” he said. Considering that the FCC has been considering net neutrality rules for two years, Mehlman said he doubted that outside parties could make substantial changes to the plan at this point.
Mehlman is also co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, a group that includes AT&T, Verizon and other communications firms. The alliance issued a statement in which Mehlman called the FCC chairman’s plan “the most effective option for reducing regulatory uncertainty in the broadband marketplace.”
Other groups and companies that reported meetings with the FCC since the beginning of November include the Media Access Project, Public Knowledge, Amazon.com, Open Internet Coalition, CTIA - The Wireless Association, T-Mobile USA, Skype Communications, and XO Communications.
Interested parties have also submitted comments to the FCC. An Allbritton official wrote in comments submitted Oct. 29 that the company endorsed a “reasonable middle ground” on the net neutrality issue “that provides flexibility for carriers to offer multiple competitive services and manage their network efficiently while, at the same time, protects users from discriminatory treatment that exacerbates a ‘a have/have not’ interest.”
The comments by Jerald Fritz, senior vice president of legal and strategic affairs, went on to say that “TBD.com’s ability to innovate the market for hyper-local news and Politico.com’s significant success from its inception less than four years ago would have been wholly impossible without an open Internet.”