House lawmakers are looking to bring legislation to shift federal funds for telephone service to broadband to markup in short order, and today called on the Federal Communications Commission to expedite a pilot program that would explore the costs of such a measure.
In a hearing probing the barriers to broadband adoption Thursday morning, Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's Internet subcommittee, told a senior FCC official that the data the agency provides will be operative in marking up the Universal Service Reform (USF) bill, which he is hoping to move out of committee soon.
"Our timeframe for doing that is fairly near-term," Boucher said.
Reforming USF to include broadband service, a long deferred item on the FCC's agenda, would attempt to address a key piece of the adoption equation by lowering the cost of high-speed Internet service for low-income Americans.
Boucher introduced the draft language of the USF reform bill last November with Lee Terry (R-Neb.), and said he hoped to include in the final version the goals of a similar bill authored by Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), who also serves on the Internet subcommittee.
The FCC had included USF reform as a recommendation in the national broadband plan it recently submitted to Congress, but Carol Mattey, the deputy chief of the agency's Wireline Competition Bureau, told the panel this morning that she didn't have a reliable estimate for the total cost of the fund.
"As we were developing the recommendation on this we came to realize there was not sufficient empirical data to project" the demand for broadband USF funding, Mattey said. She said that the commission has already begun a pilot program in select communities to generate more precise cost estimates.
A congressional mandate could be critical to the FCC's USF reform plans in light of a recent court ruling.
In April, a federal appeals court struck down a 2008 FCC order punishing Comcast for secretly blocking traffic on its data network. In the ruling, the judges held that the FCC lacked the implied, or ancillary, authority under communications law to regulate the broadband sector.
The court's decision called into question the FCC's ability not only to establish and enforce net neutrality rules, but also to implement many of the recommendations in the broadband plan, including USF reform.
In response, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced plans last week to reclassify broadband as a so-called Title II service, which would clarify the commission's jurisdiction, but would also likely provoke a lengthy legal challenge.
Genachowski's announcement drew howls of protest from the cable and telecom industries, as well as several lawmakers. Cliff Stearns, the ranking Republican on the House Internet subcommittee, introduced legislation this week that would bar the FCC from enacting net neutrality rules before demonstrating a failure in the broadband market and receiving a congressional mandate.
Stearns took the occasion of this morning's hearing to criticize the chairman for overreaching and meddling in a sector of the economy that has flourished under a deregulatory regime and suggested that the subcommittee convene a hearing on the FCC's plans. Several other Republicans on the panel echoed that view.
Terry, Boucher's co-sponsor of the USF reform bill, called Genachowski's move a "power grab."
Others took a harder line. Joe Barton, the ranking Republican of the full committee, questioned why the government even took the step of developing a broadband plan in the first place, and urged against any efforts to direct USF money to subsidize deployments in rural or remote areas.
"We've got a broadband deployment plan now. It's called free enterprise," Barton said. "Put me down as skeptical."