Thune sets stage for Senate communications law overhaul

The top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee is pushing for Congress to overhaul the law governing the Internet, television and phone service.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the ranking member of the powerful panel, said on Wednesday that the Senate would likely begin work to update the law next year, and seemed to shine on the notion that Republicans would have taken control of the upper chamber.

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“The world moves so fast that it’s hard for even the most technologically savvy and digitally-connected person to keep up with everything, so it should be no surprise that our laws have fallen woefully behind,” he said at an event on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Free State Foundation, a free market-oriented think tank.

“We need 21st Century laws for a 21st Century world.”

The Telecommunications Act outlines the authority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and sets the path for regulating phone, Internet and TV service. But it was written back in 1996, when dialup Internet allowing access to just a few thousand websites was still a luxury.

“Back then, you had to pay for Internet by the hour and going online meant tying up your home phone line,” Thune said.

Critics have said that the law created inefficient silos for different types of communications services such as television and the Web, which have posed problems for regulators dealing with modern technologies like broadband Internet.

Some Democrats have urged the FCC to regulate the Web like phone service, but Republicans have rejected that view, which they warn would impose strict rules for Internet service providers and would limit its growth.

To settle the issue, Thune said that Congress should make itself clear in a new law.

“The only way to provide the certainly that [Internet service providers], edge providers, content publishers and end users need and want is for Congress to legislate,” he said. “My colleagues and I need to roll up our sleeves and figure out how best to promote an open, competitive and free Internet.”

The House Commerce Committee has already begun working on an update to the law by issuing a series of research papers and holding hearing with experts.

That effort “starts that discussion,” Thune said.

“We hope to be able to build upon what the House has begun and give them great credit for some of the things that they’ve already undertaken.”

The push could go even smoother, he implied, if his party takes control of the Senate in November’s elections.

“I’d note that the last time Congress updated the Communications Act, a South Dakotan and Michigander also sat atop the Commerce Committees, so perhaps the stars are aligning there, too,” he said, since Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is the chairman of the House committee. 

 

-- Updated at 4:58 p.m. to clarify the description of the Free State Foundation