Rep. Boucher praises FCC, begins work on net neutrality bill

Rep. Rick Boucher, chair of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, has an ambitious agenda this fall. 

So does the Federal Communications Commission, which is looking to address many of the same issues.

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Last week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed strengthening the agency’s guidelines that govern how Internet service providers can handle traffic on their networks.

Genachowski proposed requiring Internet companies to treat all traffic the same. In other words, companies could not give preferential treatment to their own services or content provided by partners. Internet providers, such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, would prefer that the FCC did not regulate their network management practices.

Boucher also has in his sights legislation that would limit the amount of information companies like Facebook and Google could collect from consumers. He wants to reform the Universal Service Fund, the pool of money to which telecom companies contribute in order to provide services to libraries, schools and underserved areas. And he says public safety agencies need to be able to communicate across a national network, rather than the current patchwork of networks that do not work together.

Here are excerpts from a brief interview with him about his priorities.

Q: You have not signed on to any net neutrality legislation. Where do you stand on the issue?

I welcome the announcement by FCC Chairman Genachowski that he intends to move forward on a non-discrimination principle in addition to the principles put in place under then-Chairman Michael Powell. I think that the non-discrimination principle is necessary to establish clear rules to maintain an open Internet. I think Genachowski is exactly right to say so and move forward to put that rule into regulatory form.

At the same time, I have been in discussions with companies that are long promoters of net neutrality as well as Internet providers as a way to find common ground. I have been trying to negotiate between them to find an agreed-upon principle and then get that passed into law with the support of stakeholders of both sides. Those negotiations have been going on since the early spring, so this is not a new issue.

Q: What are the main concerns of the broadband providers you have been speaking with?

The concerns are very practical. There’s the desire on one hand to have very clear rules for network management practices … and to know what are the boundaries of network management that the broadband providers should have the ability to execute.

There is also a realm within which the broadband providers should be able to offer managed content across the same infrastructure. The key is to have a robust public infrastructure that is open to the public’s use and, at the same time, for the broadband providers to offer their own services and content delivered to subscribers. But drawing those boundaries has been difficult.

Q: Are you trying to introduce net neutrality legislation before the FCC presents its national broadband plan to Congress in February?

We’ll get agreement when we get agreement. Genachowski is moving forward. I don’t think it is essential to be done before the FCC’s plan is put forth.

Q: In your view, how should net neutrality principles be applied to wireless networks?

Wireless networks are becoming so much more capable. With the fourth generation — the WiMax application from Sprint and LTE application that other major carriers will soon be deploying — it is now possible to have the same kinds of rules for the wireless infrastructure that exist for the wired infrastructure.

But let me add this important exception … I think we have to be aware of the spectrum limitations of the earlier generations of wireless technologies, where there is truly limited spectrum. That limitation needs to be reflected in whatever legislation that comes forward. Wireless needs to be part of the solution, but giving due regard to the very early generation of service. Maybe you don’t have rigid requirements apply to that.

Q: Can you give us an update on your plans for privacy legislation?

I’m in the process of structuring legislation that will be introduced with bipartisan support in the not-too-distant future.

The aim is to give consumers a better sense that their online information is secure and that they know what information is collected, how that information is used and that they will have controls over that.

I think that greater sense of confidence will lead to a greater willingness to trust the Internet and engage in greater volumes of e-commerce and commercial transactions. I think the best way to do that is to give people better sense that their privacy is protected.

Q: Does that mean consumers will need to opt in to let sites track their information?

There would be a combination of opt-in and opt-out, depending on what the information is and how it would be used. We’re still working on that balance. The key elements are going to be that every website will have to disclose every piece of information that they collect from visitors and how that information is used by the website that collects it. And then users should have control over that process.

We are making rapid progress and hope to have a bill introduced before recess.

Q: You are also interested in reforming the Universal Service Fund. What are your plans?

I have been drafting comprehensive reform of USF. This is a matter I’ve been working on for the past four years. I have been meeting with stakeholders who have concerns … We think it is the right balance between the needs of companies that are the net contributors and net beneficiaries through USF. That’s the classic divide between companies that are normally at odds. We’re very close to being able to introduce that legislation.

Q: Are there other issues that you are paying special attention to?

Last week the subcommittee held a hearing about the need for interoperable networks for first responders. We clearly saw the need for that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when you have first responders from a number of localities converging.

At present you don’t have the ability to communicate with first responders using a different network. We need to make sure that capability exists. There are various plans and proposals out there, so the hearing was to take inventory of those.

Q: The FCC is trying to figure out how to allocate spectrum — known as the D Block — that has been put aside for public-safety agencies. Do you think legislation is also needed?

The D Block is just a part of it — it is not the full answer. Now matter how the D Block is utilized, there will be a remaining need (to help first responders gain access to interoperable networks). We’ll need to find additional ways of doing that.