Congress building in Washington, DC

With Republicans controlling both the House and Senate, Congress finally heeded the call by NCTA and others to offer a legislative fix for net neutrality. Fred Upton (R-MI) and John Thune (R-SD) unveiled their draft legislation Fri, ahead of hearings in both committees on Wed ( NCTA’s Michael Powell and Midcontinent ’s Tom Simmons are among witnesses). Key for cable is that the bill would classify broadband Internet access as an information service, protecting it from Title II designation. It defines and prohibits paid prioritization, referring to it as the speeding up or slowing down of some Internet traffic in relation to other traffic based on compensation or lack thereof by the ISP. Blocking and throttling are also expressly prohibited, but it does allow for “reasonable” network management by ISPs.

The rules, which are meant to be similar to the FCC’s previous rules, would apply to both wireline and wireless. Don’t look for this to go down well with Dems. Plus, there’s the matter of President Obama, who has called for a Title II approach at the FCC. “Democrats and Republicans both agree on the need for net neutrality protections, but this Republican proposal should be called the Big Broadband Baron Act,” Sen Ed Markey (D-MA) said Fri. “It is a legislative wolf in sheep’s clothing, offering select few safeguards while undermining basic consumer, privacy and accessibility protections. It would harm low-income, disabled, senior and rural consumers, and undermine competition in the telecommunications marketplace.”

Critics are concerned the bill narrows the FCC’s “no discrimination” principle by just prohibiting paid prioritization and throttling. For example, it wouldn’t address discriminatory use of broadband data caps or AT&T ’s attempt to limit Facetime in 2012 to particular tiers of service, complained Public Knowledge. They also are upset the bill allows for specialized services, which they argue could let ISPs give themselves prioritized service. Wed’s hearings come almost 1 year after a federal court struck down the FCC’s 2010 net neutrality rules. Commission chmn Tom Wheeler has indicated the agency plans to vote on new rules in Feb. Meanwhile, Sprint garnered some headlines Fri for a letter to Wheeler in which it broke ranks from other ISPs and said it would be OK with Title II. “Sprint does not believe that a light touch application of Title II, including appropriate forbearance, would harm the continued investment in, and deployment of, mobile broadband services,” read a letter from CTO Stephen Bye. “We urge the FCC and Congress not to be distracted by debates over Title II but to focus on competition by ensuring that any net neutrality regulations adopted recognize the unique network management challenges faced by mobile carriers and the need to allow mobile carriers the flexibility to design products and services to differentiate ourselves in the market.”

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