House takes step to overhaul communications law

Top Republican lawmakers took the first step to update a foundational law regulating Internet, television and telephone communications on Wednesday.

Reps. Fred Upton (Mich.) and Greg Walden (Ore.), who lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its communications and technology subcommittee, respectively, released a white paper outlining flaws that have emerged since the law was last updated more than a decade ago. The paper is the first action in the multi-year effort to revamp the Communications Act.

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The 1934 law created and outlined the powers of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but it has not been significantly modernized since 1996. 

Updating the law “is critical to ensuring that the communications and technology sectors, the bright spot of our national economy, have laws and regulations that foster continued innovation and job creation,” Upton and Walden said in a joint statement.

The 1996 update created a distinction between “telecommunications” and “information” services, which has led to less regulation for broadband Internet operations than for phone services. Those different categories have cast doubts on the FCC’s ability to oversee broadband companies.

The lawmakers’ analysis noted that the law “did not address the Internet in a forward-looking manner.”

The committee’s white paper also criticized the “siloed” nature of the current law, which has different rules for different kinds of communications. This has created a problem with providers that now offer, for example, combined communication services, such as making calls through an Internet connection. That has created “regulatory uncertainty” about the FCC’s authority, legislators said in their review.

Lawmakers are asking the public to comment on the paper and any other issues related to the Communications Act by the end of the month.

They plan to continue their effort to reform the law with additional white papers and a series of hearings, none of which have yet been scheduled.

Upton and Walden announced the effort to update the Communications Act during an online video chat on Google Plus in December.

Tech industry groups have supported an overhaul of the law, though they have disagreed about the best way to do it.

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