House Republican Leaders Announce Effort to Reform Communications Law

Signal it will be lengthy process with hearings, papers and public comment

House Republicans Tuesday said they were launching an effort to rewrite communications law that has been outstripped by technology and innovation.

House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) used a Google Hangout event Tuesday to announce the launch of a process to reform the Communications Act in 2015.

They said that process would include a series of hearings in 2014, white papers on the state of the industry, and input from the public via #CommActUpdate.

Former FCC Commmissioner Robert McDowell joined in to give his thumbs up on the effort, which he said would be a long—multi-year—process.

There were not Democrats at the announcement and no opportunity to query the participants. In a statement following the announcement, Rep. John Dingell (D- Mich.) interjected a note of caution while pledging support for the idea of reform and to work toward that goal.

“As the author of every major telecommunications statute for the past three decades, I caution my Republican colleagues to approach modernizing the Communications Act with great care and attention to detail," he said. "Changes should not be made simply for change’s sake, but rather based on clear and documented need. I urge my colleagues to proceed in a bipartisan manner and to hold numerous hearings in order to generate the record an undertaking this substantial will require. This will affect a rapidly changing industry, with many jobs and billions of dollars in investment at stake. We should approach this in a balanced fashion in order to preserve and promote American leadership in the telecommunications industry. I am ready, willing, and able to work with my Republican and Democratic colleagues in this effort.”

“In the nearly 18 years since the last update of the Communications Act, the world has been revolutionized by broadband and new digital technologies," said Comcast in a statement. "The silos of current regulation may not always fit technological realities.  We applaud Chairmen Upton and Walden for beginning the conversation on changing the Communications Act for the 21st Century, and look forward to working with them and other Members of the committee.”

Walden said he had met with cable operators earlier in the day, and they talked about how they had to pay franchise fees while a Netflix did not have that cost of distribution.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association President and former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has long called for reform, said he was ready to wade in as well.

“We have long maintained that many of the laws governing the communications marketplace are frayed.  Since their creation, the landscape has been transformed – new, unimagined products and services as well as dramatic changes in market structure. We are prepared and pleased to work with Chairmen Upton and Walden and the entire Committee to carefully re-examine the aging Communications Act.”

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai was also pleased and ready to pitch in. "Some provisions of the Act have yellowed with age, unchanged, since the Great Depression; even those of more recent vintage predate the transformative impacts of the Internet, competition, and innovation. In a converged industry, it does not make sense to apply different rules to providers and technologies that compete in the same markets.

Convergence is now the norm, and consumers, companies, and the Commission would be better off if our laws and regulations recognized as much. As the Committee moves forward with its work, I stand ready and able to assist in whatever way I can."

“I am pleased to hear that Chairmen Upton and Walden are planning a thorough review and update of the communications statute," said Republican COmmissioner Ajig Pai. "I defer to the Congressional process but am happy to assist in any way possible.”

Ditto broadcasters.

"NAB salutes the vision of Chairmen Upton and Walden in proposing a holistic review of U.S. telecommunications policy," said National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith, adding: "There can be little doubt that in this multichannel, multiplatform communications world, local broadcasting remains the essential and indispensable programming source in every American community. We look forward to working with Chairmen Upton and Walden and other members of the Energy & Commerce committee as they consider telecom legislation that sustains a robust future for local broadcasting."

“CTIA welcomes the discussion that Chairmen Upton and Walden have proposed,” said CTIA VP, government affairs, Jot Carpenter, of the announcement. “We hope Congress will continue to adhere to a ‘light-touch’ approach to wireless regulation and use this effort not to impose new obligations, but rather to encourage the deployment of advanced wireless infrastructure and streamline the regulatory process.”