Stevens: New Telecommunications Law Around the Corner

The Senate Commerce Committee should present proposed legislation for a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 after Congress’s Easter recess, Sen. Ted Stevens told COMPTEL members on Monday during the association’s 25th anniversary keynote speech. Stevens, an Alaska Republican, is chairman of the committee, which has been working to overhaul communications regulation. He plans to hold the final in a series of hearings on March 30, addressing competition and convergence, before presenting legislation for mark-up in a few weeks.

Stevens also said he is working with the full Senate to have COMPTEL lawyer Robert McDowell cleared as the FCC’s fifth and final commissioner. The committee last week sent McDowell’s name to the Senate for confirmation, although it is not known when lawmakers will vote on McDowell’s appointment.

As the Commerce Committee works on new telecommunications and communications law, net neutrality is at the forefront. The debate, Stevens noted, contains many views, which essentially narrow down to parties who want Congress to enforce net neutrality provisions; those who do not want policymakers to decide such requirements; and those who think the government should take no action. Among the many issues is whether cable and telecom operators providing Internet access should be allowed to charge applications providers such as eBay Inc. and Google Inc. for preferential treatment. On the whole, said Stevens, net neutrality is “one of the most difficult issues our committee faces.”

Video franchising comprises another crucial part of any communications rewrite, said Stevens, who is looking into possibly instituting a national franchising approach. The current system, he explained, “is the largest barrier to entry” for new competitors.

Like FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, Stevens told COMPTEL members his biggest motivation is to create a level playing field in the U.S. communications industry. Right now, he noted, the market acts like a 12-story building, where everyone on the different levels plays according to different rules. Most of all, Stevens said, he wants to ensure rural Americans obtain equal and affordable access to high-speed Internet services as the rest of the country; he also wants to broaden the Universal Service Fund (USF) base. Alaska receives the highest percentage of USF proceeds.

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