Pickering Outlines FCC’s Net-Neutrality Role

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Washington -- Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), who is helping to craft a new telecommunications bill, indicated Thursday that network-neutrality mandates would take effect depending on the outcome of a Federal Communications Commission inquiry on the openness of cable and other broadband networks.

Pickering, who is working with leaders of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said the bill would likely clarify that the FCC has authority to enforce network-neutrality principles it enunciated last August.

At some point, he added, the FCC would need to study the market to determine whether broadband-access providers were harming competitors through discriminatory practices -- a regulatory exercise that might occur without a working definition of network neutrality.

“I do think that clarifying the authority is the first step, and then, hopefully, we will see in the future a clearer defining moment, either legislatively or through FCC action, as to what network neutrality means,” Pickering said in remarks to the Consumer Electronics Association here. “Everyone says they’re for it. The question is how to define it, and that is still an outstanding question.”

The bill is also expected to award national cable franchises to phone companies, which would eliminate their need to secure local approvals. Cable incumbents would need local franchises until phone companies served 15% of the local video market.

Big Internet players such as Microsoft Corp., Google Inc. (www.google.com) and Amazon.com Inc. (www.amazon.com) fear that cable and phone companies will use their networks to distort competition or drive rivals from the market. Energy and Commerce chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Pickering are willing to enact a law to ensure that those fears are not realized.

“If something evolves in the marketplace over the next two to five years, then the FCC has the authority to enforce the principle that the Consumer Electronics Association and the Internet providers, as well as the Bells and cable, have said they are for,” Pickering told reporters later.

Pickering added that he hadn’t seen problems in the marketplace.

Under some interpretations, net neutrality means that cable and phone broadband providers may not discriminate against voice, video and content rivals on the Internet. National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said net-neutrality mandates would represent government regulation of the Internet for the first time.

Asked if a market-friendly Republican Congress planned to regulate the Internet, Pickering said, “We do not. Net neutrality was affirmed by [FCC] chairman [Michael] Powell, a Republican chairman, and pro-competitive requirements are actually are very much consistent with the free-market ideals of Ronald Reagan, who broke up AT&T.”

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