US bill attempts to deregulate broadband services

The U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee is debating a controversial bill whose sponsors say is designed to provide market incentives to speed up the delivery of broadband Internet services to both consumer and businesses.

The committee is expected to vote late Wednesday on an amended version of the bill proposed yesterday. The bill, sponsored by representatives W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, a Republican from Louisiana, and John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, and called the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act of 2001, attempts to deregulate broadband services. It rejects the application of "antiquated telephone rules to a new market like broadband," said Tauzin, the committee's chairman, in an opening statement to the committee Wednesday. But opponents have criticized the bill as protecting incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs).

The bill would take away from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and states the ability to regulate high-speed data and Internet access service. The original version of the bill proposed last month contained language that also limited the FCC's ability to force the regional Bell companies to open up their networks to competitors trying to use the established infrastructure to deliver services.

The amended draft, however, clarifies that it would seek only to deregulate high speed data and Internet backbone services -- rather than voice as well.

The key provision of the amended bill proposed yesterday, Tauzin pointed out: "clarifies that the bill's prohibition on federal and state regulation of network elements only applies if those elements are used to provide high-speed data services, Internet backbone services or Internet access service."

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 stipulated that ILECs can enter the long-distance market only when they open up their local markets to competition, and that stipulation has been interpreted by state and federal regulators, including the FCC, to mean that ILECs should lease out elements of their local networks to competitors entering their markets.

The House committee was prepared to spend Wednesday afternoon hearing a number of proposed amendments to the Internet Freedom bill, though debate was interrupted at least temporarily by a fire in the building that forced House members and those listening to the debate to vacate the premises for a while. The hearing room where the debate was taking place was standing room only earlier in the day, packed with telecommunications lobbyists representing both the ILECS and competitive carriers.

Once this bill is approved by the committee, it goes to the full House to be voted on. Members of the committee said another bill, which covers the tightening of enforcement of regulations applying to ILECs, would be attached to the Internet Freedom bill and House members would vote on them together.