Closed-door telecom overhaul to begin Friday; invitees remain uncertain

Subsequent meetings will be scheduled to examine broadband deployment and spectrum policy and will include a different set of stakeholders.

The chairmen of the authorizing committees announced last month that they want to begin rewriting the Communications Act of 1934, which was last overhauled as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 after a lobbying battle that dragged on for years.

But the chairmen enter the negotiations already clashing with Republicans over whether legislation is needed. House Energy and Commerce ranking member Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and House Communications Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) wrote the Democrats last week saying "we do not see any urgency to legislate."

The move to update communications law follows an April appeals court decision that thrust into uncertainty the bounds of the FCC’s legal authority to regulate broadband issues, including whether it has the muscle to enforce net neutrality rules.  

The relevant chairmen and ranking members diverge on the bounds of FCC power in the aftermath of the decision. They also disagree on whether the agency should move to clarify its authority through a wholly-FCC-based proceeding, as it began to do last week. 

The fundamental divide between the parties is the extent to which Internet service providers should be regulated, with Democrats backing net neutrality rules to prevent broadband providers from toying with the Internet content and applications that run over their networks. Republicans say that's overregulation and would stifle investment in broadband networks.

The first talk will include staffers to members including Senate Commerce Chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and ranking member Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.); Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and ranking member Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.); House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Barton; and House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Stearns.

The talks do not appear to be open to press. A list of participants and statements submitted by attendees will be made available to the public, the lawmakers indicated.