Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., said this morning there is a 55 percent chance the 109th Congress will sign a new telecom bill into law before convening in the summer. If legislation does not pass, he said, at least the work were doing now is fundamentally important.
Boucher serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee under Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas. The committee is working to reform the Telecommunications Act of 1996, as the Senate Commerce Committee simultaneously wrangles through issues it deems important for improvement. Boucher was the keynote speaker Tuesday morning during the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) winter meeting in Washington, D.C.
Among the topics the House Energy and Commerce Committee considers top priority for modification: sustaining the Universal Service Fund (USF); guaranteeing net neutrality provisions; and enabling local governments to offer commercial broadband services.
Boucher said he wants to change the base of USF contributors to include VoIP service providers, cable companies, BPL and Wi-Fi providers. He also wants to include revenue from intrastate calls. Expanding the base would propel the United States from its 16th-place rating to among the best-served, broadband-connected countries in the world, Boucher maintained. Our economic future depends on us doing far better than 16th, he said.
The Congressmans stance on the USF could engender some opposition from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Barton, who told another association gathered last week in Washington, D.C., that he would like to see the USF repealed. But Boucher said he is optimistic Barton will end up signing on to the House version of the telecom reform bill since it already has strong bipartisan support.
Even though the USF heads Bouchers to-do list, he said the issue likely will be addressed after the House takes action on the Broadband Internet Transmission Services (BITS) bill. That text is first priority for the House, he said. The draft BITS bill provides a deregulatory umbrella for all providers of broadband Internet transmission services, which is all the features, functions, packetized facilities and other network equipment used to transmit packetized information. FCC, states and localities are barred from regulating rates or other terms set by BITS providers with a few exceptions, especially in the case of VoIP, where USF contributions, interconnection, number portability and 911, among other requirements, are to be administered by the FCC.
The draft does preserve the rights of a company that is both a telecommunications carrier and a BITS provider to access unbundled network elements and colocation as provided under the Communications Act. It also preserves an entitys rights to special access tariffs.
Perhaps what most concerns Boucher, then, is making sure a telecom rewrite guarantees network neutrality, a topic that has dominated NARUC sessions this week and is the subject of heated debate. Given the Brand X decision last year stating cable companies do not have to offer access to modem services to ISPs, and the FCCs follow-up ruling similarly reversing open-access requirements for telecom carriers, Boucher said it is imperative a rewrite cement net neutrality. The Internet has been available to everyone on a nondiscriminatory basis, he said, and that open access has driven American business. He said if the next Google is forced to pay every last-mile provider for access, it will never launch and innovation will be stifled.
Boucher pointed out that Vint Cerf, Googles so-called Internet Evangelist and co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocol, also opposes anyone having to pay for packet prioritization, as does Google.
On the other hand, telecom carriers argue they should require applications service providers such as Google and Yahoo! Inc. to pay fees for packet prioritization so the telcos can effectively compete against the cable operators. Boucher said one way to address this concern, without endangering consumers uninhibited access to the Internet, is for all providers to prioritize their video packets and those of unaffiliated video providers. This would retain the Internet as we know it today, Boucher said.
Boucher also touched on the debate surrounding municipal Wi-Fi, saying states should not be able to keep local governments from offering telecom services. He added, however, that states should be allowed to impose provisions such as customer service mandates.
Among other subjects Boucher covered was his recommendation for a five-year transition period that gives all USF recipients time to implement required broadband service offerings of at least 1MB. He also wants to eliminate the phantom traffic problem and would do so by requiring all traffic to identify its origin. He further intends to propose a cap on the balance of the high-cost fund, a matter that worries rural carriers; and would like to move from geographic averaging to wire-center averaging, ensuring that local exchange spinoffs from carriers that do not qualify for USF money will not receive any of those proceeds.