OVERNIGHT TECH: FCC has nearly 800k net neutrality comments

THE LEDE: The Federal Communications Commission has received 780,000 comments from lawmakers, companies, public interest groups and concerned citizens regarding the agency’s controversial attempts to rewrite its net neutrality rules.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler provoked the comment avalanche in April when he unveiled his plans to rewrite the agency's net neutrality rules, which kept Internet providers from blocking or slowing access to certain websites before they were struck down by a federal court in January.

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Under Wheeler’s original plan to revive the rules, Internet providers like Comcast could be able to charge websites like Netflix for better access to users, which critics said would create a two-tiered Internet where only deep-pocketed companies with “fast lane” access could reach users effectively. After facing backlash from Democrats in the Commission and on Capitol Hill, Wheeler broadened his plan to consider more seriously other options to rewrite the rule, including changing the way the FCC regulates Internet providers by reclassifying them as “Title II” common carriers.

The flurry of net neutrality activity is likely to continue through the week, after the agency extended the deadline for comments on the contentious issue from Tuesday to Friday, citing technical issues with the agency’s website.

“Not surprisingly, we have seen an overwhelming surge in traffic on our website that is making it difficult for many people to file comments through our Electronic Comment Filing System,” an agency spokeswoman said in a statement. 

According to one FCC aide, the agency’s technical difficulties are evidence that Congress needs to boost FCC funding so it can modernize its technology systems. Earlier this year, Wheeler testified to House and Senate appropriators, asking for more money to update the agency’s tech, some of which is a decade old. "There is not a business in America that would put up with this,” he said.

Budget woes before budget vote: On Wednesday, the House is set to vote on a bill that would cut funding for the FCC. The appropriations bill would give the agency $323 million, $17 million less than it received last year and $52 million less than it requested for 2015. That bill will be considered on the House floor Wednesday under an open rule. 

According to Democratic aides, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) — vice chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — is planning to introduce an amendment that would keep the FCC from intervening with community broadband projects. As the agency rewrites its net neutrality rules, Wheeler has pledged to preempt state laws that keep local governments from creating community Internet networks.

Cable groups warn about embracing Title II: The commission should stay away from declaring broadband Internet a “telecommunications service” instead of an “information service” and open it up to utility-style regulation, Comcast warned in its filing. The cable giant told the FCC that extreme step “is not only entirely unnecessary but would be unwise and likely unlawful.”  Instead, Comcast urged the FCC to stick with its powers under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which provides “ample authority” to prevent discrimination and blocking of websites. 

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association added praise for the FCC’s history of a “light regulatory touch” and warned it not to deviate from that path. “The Commission now stands at a crossroads, and the continued vibrancy of the Internet is at stake,” the trade group warned.  

But Dems warn about ruling it out: On the other side of the debate, some Democratic members of Congress and public interest groups pushed for a more robust regulatory stance. Net neutrality has turned the Internet into “an open marketplace for ideas and commerce—a marketplace in which everyone can participate on equal footing, regardless of one’s wealth or power,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) argued in his official comments. 

Earlier on Tuesday, Franken joined a dozen other senators to push for the FCC to reclassify the Web to treat broadband providers like telephone companies. Public Knowledge called that step, which would surely be controversial, the “only way to protect a single, open Internet.” Consumers Union said that the FCC should ban “paid prioritization” deals that could lead to Internet fast lanes. 

Senate Commerce preps for video showdown: Online video and the effect of twin TV mega-mergers will be at the center of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday afternoon. Ahead of the session, panel Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said that the current video marketplace “stands at a crossroads today.” Either the U.S. could maintain “the status quo” as programming increasingly moves online, he said, or else turn to a “brighter path... where broadband facilitates a new evolution in video services as it has done in other markets.”  

Pending mergers between Comcast and Time Warner Cable and AT&T and DirecTV “raise issues about the future of the video marketplace,” the committee said in a notice ahead of the hearing. With their larger size, some consumer advocates have feared that the companies would be able to squeeze out new services like Netflix and Hulu.

Public Knowledge head Gene Kimmelman, who is scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s hearing, said that Congress needed to act “to ensure that online video providers are able to play by the same rules that promote competition for traditional cable and satellite video providers.” Comcast’s David Cohen, AT&T’s John Stankey, Dish Network’s Jeffrey Blum, screenwriter Shawn Ryan and University of Nebraska law professor Justin Hurwitz, are also scheduled to testify.

House Republicans look into interconnection deals: The House Energy and Commerce Committee is asking for comments on “interconnection deals,” the agreements to carry traffic over phone and Internet networks. In the Internet space, these deals have come under scrutiny in recent months after Netflix publicly feuded with Comcast and Verizon, saying it had to make interconnection deals to avoid congestion on the providers’ networks. The FCC announced in May that it would be examining interconnection arrangements between websites and Internet providers.

“At the core of interconnection policy are the questions of who is responsible for ensuring smooth, end-to-end delivery of traffic, what is needed to ensure quality of service, and how our legal and regulatory framework can foster high quality networks and services,” the Committee — which is in the middle of a yearslong effort to overhaul the law governing telecom industries and regulators — said in a new white paper released Tuesday. The paper asks for input on changes to the interconnection system and whether and how Congress and the FCC should intervene.

Rubio eyes long game on spectrum bills: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is willing to wait to implement his three-part plan to make more airwaves available for things like cellphone and Wi-Fi networks. In June, Rubio unveiled his plan to introduce three spectrum bills. He has since introduced the Wireless Innovation Act and the Wi-Fi Innovation Act which deal with federally-held airwaves and unlicensed airwaves for Wi-Fi networks, respectively. Rubio said off the Senate floor Tuesday that his third bill is unlikely to come this week.

“I certainly want to create the groundwork to either deal with it when we return after the August recess or, worst case scenario, that we have something to start as a baseline in what I hope will be a new Republican majority in January,” he said.

USTelecom warns about phone ‘spoofing’: A day ahead of a Senate Aging Committee hearing on phone scams, the broadband trade group USTelecom is issuing new tips for consumers. Kevin Rupy, the group’s vice president of law and policy, said it is seeing “a growing number” of reports about “spoofing” calls, which appear to be coming from a subscriber’s own phone number. “Carriers are deeply concerned about this problem and are educating call centers to help customers who experience these calls,” he said in a statement.

The Better Business Bureau, he noted, urges people not to trust caller ID technology, hang up if they have been called by a scammer and, most importantly, refuse to give out bank info, Social Security numbers or anything else. Then, they should file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission.

Broadcaster backers bemoan ‘swarming’ lobbyists: Cable and satellite lobbyists are “swarming” over Capitol Hill and the FCC to change the way companies pay for broadcasters’ programming, TVFreedom public affairs director Robert Kenny wrote in an op-ed in The Hill. Instead, lawmakers should be focused on the companies’ “truth in billing practices and shoddy customer service,” he said, such as a recent push from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

 

ON TAP:

On Wednesday, the House will vote on the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, which provides reduced funding for the FTC and FCC.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) is participating in a daylong event on Internet governance at George Washington University. 

The Senate Commerce Committee is looking at domestic access to space at 9:30.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation hosts a panel discussion on the Internet protocol transition at noon.

The Senate Aging Committee talks about phone scams at 1:30 p.m.

At 2:30, the Senate Commerce Committee talks about video issues. 

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

Civil liberties advocates are calling on President Obama to take a stand against cybersecurity legislation they fear would further embolden the National Security Agency.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) is raising alarms about criminal hackers that turn victims’ computers against their owners.

Stock in tech companies plunged on Tuesday morning after Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen suggested shares in social media and biotechnology companies are overvalued.

A group of 13 senators is pressuring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reconsider the way it regulates Internet providers.

 

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