The Federal Communications Commission's national broadband plan came under its first congressional review Thursday morning, with lawmakers directing pointed questions about proposals to reclaim spectrum from TV broadcasters and promote competition in the Internet service sector.
The hearing also surfaced deep divisions among the five commissioners about the agency's proper role and authority in establishing a regulatory framework over broadband services, revisiting the testy issue of net neutrality, which was absent from the plan, but remains under consideration both in a proceeding at the FCC and a federal appeals court.
Several congressmen voiced concerns about the plan's spectrum recommendations, which propose reallocating 120 MHz of broadcast airwaves for wireless data networks. The plan stresses that the FCC would invite broadcasters to voluntarily relinquish spectrum licenses in exchange for a portion of the proceeds of a resale auction, though broadcasters have already voiced opposition to the proposal and warned against any efforts to force their hand.
"I hope if they have to relinquish anything it will be on a voluntary basis," said Cliff Stearns, the ranking Republican on the House Internet subcommittee.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stressed that he would make good on the voluntary framework, but declined to speculate on how he would steer the commission if licensees resisted the proposal, saying only that the FCC would "make sure that broadcasters are treated fairly."
The FCC would need congressional authorization to conduct the "incentive auctions" proposed in the broadband plan, though absent cooperation from the broadcasters, some members of the commission believe they could find an alternate path to reallocation.
"Licenses all expire," said Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat. "I've always been a believer in use it or lose it," he said, cautioning broadcasters to demonstrate that they are making the most efficient use of their airwaves while the FCC conducts an inventory in search of more spectrum to use for mobile broadband.
But while the broadband plan was explicit in its recommendations for spectrum reallocation, it did not address the FCC's net neutrality proceeding that has cast a long shadow over the commissions recent work. It also didn't make a procedural recommendation for reclassifying broadband as a regulated telecommunications service, which would subject ISPs to the same common carrier requirements that govern wireline telephone providers.
But while that proposal was not contained in the plan, several industry groups, lawmakers and some members of the commission have warned that the competition proposals it outlined lay the groundwork for heavier regulations imposed on the still young Internet sector.
"My concern is that we proactively proceed with competition regulations when we're talking about a market in the future," said Republican Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker. "We need to be very careful when we tread in this area," she added, warning against the FCC heading down a "more radical path" toward Internet regulation.
For his part, Genachowski tried to put his views to the panel plainly. "I am not in favor of regulating the Internet," he said in response to sharp questions from Michigan Republican Mike Rogers.
Genachowski was seeking to stake out distance between his proposal for net neutrality rules and the burdensome regulatory regime that ardent critics say it would inevitably create.
"I've been very public for quite a long time that clear high-level rules to preserve a free and open Internet" are needed, he said. "I see real consistency between my priorities of innovation and investment and preserving a free and open Internet."
The FCC voted to initiate a rule-making process on Genachowski's net neutrality proposal in October, but the broadband plan made no mention of it.