FCC chief gets new net neutrality support in House from Waxman

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that he supports legislation that would prohibit Internet companies from giving preferential treatment to certain services and content on the Web.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he signed on to a bill introduced by Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) to codify the principal of net neutrality, which would force Internet service providers to treat all traffic the same.

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His endorsement of the policy gives new support to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who reaffirmed his own commitment to net neutrality in his first appearance before Congress since his confirmation hearing. The House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet on Thursday peppered all five members of the FCC with questions ranging from its broadband strategy to agency reform efforts.

Markey, the subcommittee’s former chairman, told the commissioners he wants cell phone companies to come up with a single standard for cell phone chargers so consumers won’t have to buy a new charger every time they buy a new phone. The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), wanted to know what Genachowski is doing to make the FCC more transparent and collaborative.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) told the FCC to address the lack of minority ownership in the media and broadcast industries. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) said the agency needs to hurry up its plan for unlicensed airwaves known as white spaces.

And Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) asked the FCC to address an issue known as special access, or the prices AT&T, Verizon and Qwest charge cell phone carriers for access to their high-speed networks, “sometime before we all die.”

Genachowski said the FCC is “actively working on” the special access issue and is considering all the relevant factors as it develops the national broadband plan, which is due to Congress in February. He called broadband “this generation’s major infrastructure challenge,” and said his team is focusing on how broadband can enable the nation’s largest priorities, such as smart-grid technology, health technology, job creation and education.

He also said the agency intends to reform the Universal Service Fund, to which phone companies contribute in order to build phone networks in underserved areas of the country and to connect libraries and schools. Genachowski said the fund “has been under pressure because of changes in the marketplace … We need to move USF to a program to one that supports broadband.”

He said he planned to make changes by February.

Republican lawmakers said they are wary of a plan that is too prescriptive in placing regulations on the private companies that will ultimately make the investments into broadband networks.

“I think we’re in better shape than we give ourselves credit for,” Barton said, after saying he does not agree with an international report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that ranks the U.S. 15th in broadband access and use. “The last thing we should do is return to an old discredited monopoly regulatory-era approach.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) agreed, saying he hoped the FCC does not intervene too much in the broadband industry and does “not give in to temptation for net neutrality.”

Commissioner Robert McDowell, the senior Republican on the FCC, said, “Whatever polices we adopt should help attract more private investment and not deter it. ... We should not cherry-pick data to justify a predetermined outcome.”

The newest members of the FCC for the first time laid out their priorities for Congress. Meredith Atwell Baker, a Republican, said she is interested in making sure spectrum is allocated in the most efficient ways — an idea supported by the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), and ranking member Rep. Cliff Sterns (R-Fla.), who have introduced a bill to take inventory of all of the country’s valuable airwaves.

Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat and daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), said she wants to “refocus the agency onto consumers,” such as the FCC’s recent inquiry into whether cell phone companies provide adequate information to consumers.