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Trade group, lawmaker question drive to classify broadband as a utility

A cable broadband trade group and a Democratic lawmaker ask the FCC to back away from regulation of broadband

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A cable broadband trade group and a lawmaker are urging the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to refrain from reclassifying broadband as a regulated utility, a move the agency's chairman says is still on the table.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association and Representative Gene Green, a Texas Democrat, are circulating a letter in the U.S. Congress asking FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to back away from reclassifying broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service.

Green, in the letter, said he believes in a free and open Internet, but is concerned with reclassification. "In the years that broadband service has been subjected to relatively little regulation, investment and deployment have flourished and broadband competition has increased, all to the benefit of consumers and the American economy," the letter said.

New regulations on broadband "might halt this progress," Green added in the letter. "I respectfully urge you to consider the effect that regressing to a [common carrier] approach might have on private companies' ability to attract capital and their continued incentives to invest and innovate, as well as the potentially negative impact on job creation that might result from any reduction in funding or investment."

Reregulating broadband as a so-called telecommunications service is not the "best means of achieving" an open Internet, the letter added.

Green, with help from the trade group, is asking fellow lawmakers to sign the letter before Thursday, when the FCC is scheduled to release Wheeler's proposal to restore net neutrality rules and open it to public comment.

Many net neutrality advocates have criticized Wheeler's proposal to allow broadband providers to engage in "commercially reasonable" traffic management as a weak version of net neutrality, and digital rights groups such as Free Press have called on Wheeler to move to reclassify broadband under traditional telecom regulations found in Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

Wheeler, in recent days, has said reclassification remains an option for the regulator.

In the early 2000s the FCC removed traditional telecom regulations from broadband providers and classified them as a lightly regulated information service. In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the FCC couldn't use the legal reasoning it did to pass net neutrality rules in 2010, because of the agency's own classification of broadband as an information service.

Backers of strong net neutrality should be wary when cable companies steer the FCC toward Wheeler's original net neutrality proposal, instead of reclassification, said Timothy Karr, Free Press' senior strategy director.

"The fact of the matter is that the FCC can't protect Net Neutrality without restoring its legal authority," he said by email. "That you have cable lobbyists rallying around [Wheeler's original plan] tells you all you need to know about the prospects for net neutrality on that path."

Several studies have rejected the argument that reclassification would hurt broadband investment, Karr added. "What we need is an Internet free from discrimination, not empty threats from cable companies," he said.

An NCTA spokesman said the trade group's concerns are justified, and reclassification would lead to "ruinous consequences."

"We support an open Internet, but many of its most vocal advocates are employing aggressive tactics and misinformation to try and bully the FCC into the radical and unwarranted step of reclassifying broadband into a Title II public utility," he added by email. "The harm to investment would be substantial; limiting the hopes of getting broadband to every American, slowing the growth of broadband speeds, and impeding efforts to improve adoption."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.



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