Thune: FCC putting ‘billions in jeopardy’

Republicans clashed with officials from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday over the agency’s plans for broadband regulation, with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) accusing it of putting “billions of dollars in jeopardy.”

Blasting FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s proposal to boost his power over broadband services — which he says would help make overdue reforms to a telecom fund — Thune predicted an entirely different result: “torturous litigation.”

Reforming the FCC’s Universal Service Fund is a flimsy reason to change how the agency regulates broadband, Thune argued at a Commerce Committee hearing.

“Why would we rather put $50 to $60 billion in jeopardy to fix a $7 to $8 billion fund?” he said, charging that phone and cable companies will dial down their massive network investments if the FCC moves on its regulatory proposal.

Echoing the concerns, Republican Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker said the proposal is “already causing stocks to decline.”

Democratic FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps pushed back, with Copps arguing the proposal would actually clarify looming uncertainties about regulation.

“Business operates better when it doesn’t have a question mark in front of it,” Copps said.

Genachowski announced last month that the FCC’s ability to reform the Universal Service Fund and create net neutrality rules might have been impaired by an appeals court decision. This view prompted him to seek greater power for the agency.

Senators and those testifying were split on whether Genachowski was correct that the court decision might have undercut FCC might.

Speaking on the "dire need" to reform the Universal Service Fund, Clyburn said the goal might not be "impossible" after the decision, but added that it might be tougher.

Baker had a different view.

“I think we have the authority and can do it [without changing broadband’s regulatory status],” she said, agreeing with an argument made by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) went the furthest in raising concerns about a weak FCC. He said the court decision entirely undercuts FCC authority and that legislation is needed.

“I read that decision to be a striking blow to what the commission can do,” he said, arguing that it "jeopardizes a whole bunch of things under the National Broadband Plan.”

Stakeholder meetings on possible telecom legislation begin Friday with staff for the relevant committee chairmen.

One senator, however, was dubious a legislative route is practical. The last telecommunications overhaul was in 1996 and followed a lobbying fight that stretched over several years.

“We can’t even extend unemployment benefits,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).