Congressmen, ISPs Moving to Take Control of Net Neutality Issue From FCC

A bipartisan coalition is working with service providers on a bill that would impose new conditions and leave the commission mostly as fine-levier

The possibility is growing that a bipartisan coalition of Congressmen could try to move a big part of the net neutrality issue out of the Federal Communications Commission’s hands.

In what would be a blow to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who has vigorously supported net neutrality, House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has been working with a group of legislators on a bill that would bar the FCC from acting but impose new conditions on internet providers.

The commission would be left to developing procedures and rules to handle complaints and basically act as policeman, getting new authority to levy fines of up to $2 million for violation of the new law, say people familiar with the negotiations.

The law would not be permanent but last only for two years.

A number of internet service providers have been working with the legislators on the plan, though passage this year — with elections coming up, followed by a lame-duck sesssion — is unlikely.

The plan is expected to be formally announced in the next day.

According to a draft, the legislation would basically block providers of wired internet connections from “unjustly or unreasonably” discriminating against lawful internet content.

Still, it could allow companies to charge extra for so called “managed services” — including delivery HD versions of first-run movies — as long as all potential providers could used the managed care.

Google and Verizon had proposed the managed-services tier as part of their plan for resolving net neutrality issues.

Companies offering wired connections also would be requited to have a web page disclosing their fees, performance and network management practices; the FCC would specify the exact requirements.

Wireless connections would have far fewer rules. Consumers would be able to access any lawful website, and phone and cable systems would be specifically barred from totally blocking competing voice and video products. Providers could offer their own or partner products or video at better speeds.

The original Google-Verizon proposal called for similar limits on wired connections but no limits at all on what companies could do on wireless connections.

Phone and cable internet providers have been concerned about the FCC acting and have won the ear of Democrats and Republicans in the House. But in the Senate, members of the Senate Commerce Committee have pushed the FCC to implement net neutrality. 

That could make any final Congressional action on the legislation this year unlikely, especially considering Congress as little time left in Washington.

Congress will adjourn shortly for the elections, leaving any prospects for the legislation to a short lame duck session.

“It is ambitious” to expect action this year, said Rebecca Arbogast, managing director of investment firm Stifel Nicolaus. “A lot depends on the outcome of the elections, but it’s tough to get action in a lame duck session.”