Senator Nelson: We can't put a straightjacket on the FCC

ORLANDO, Fla.--U.S. Senator (D-Fla.) Bill Nelson said that one of the key challenges for the telecom industry is that the government needs to give the industry's key regulator, the FCC, flexibility to adapt as new applications and service segments emerge.

Speaking at the Comptel Spring 2015 show, Nelson told attendees that the telecom industry is in a constant state of change and that the FCC needs to have freedom to develop new rules and regulations that protect consumers and businesses.  

"The world will be different in a year in the [telecom] industry than what it is now," Nelson said. "If we put a straightjacket on the FCC, we may very much miss the future and leave the agency powerless and American consumers defenseless to deal with the emerging problems."

One of the key challenges that Congress faces in building an alternative to the FCC's net neutrality order will be getting Republican and Democratic Party lawmakers to work together in a bipartisan way.

"I have made no bones that I want to remain open to true bipartisan Congressional action on net neutrality, but at this point I can't tell you that that is possible," Nelson said. "From this senator's standpoint, the legislature must protect consumers, it must not undercut the FCC's role, and it must leave the agency with flexible, forward looking authority to respond to the changes in a dynamic and evolving industry as this broadband marketplace is."

Nelson added that policy makers need to alleviate the uncertainty that's emerged from legal challenges from the National Cable Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and the USTelecom Association.

On Monday, USTelecom refiled its lawsuit against the FCC in the U.S. Court of Appeals claiming the agency overstepped its authority with its net neutrality rules. In its suit, the organization, which represents large telcos such as AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ), argued that the FCC's decision to reclassify broadband as a Title II telecom service is an abuse of its power and will be an "unjustifiable shift backward to common carrier regulation" that has existed for more than a decade.

"The key question that policy makers have to ask is how and what the FCC has done and provide the certainty, predictability, and permanency that legislation can provide since there is a degree of uncertainty caused by the lawsuits that are starting to take place," Nelson said.  

One answer that Nelson, along with fellow Senate Commerce Committee member Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), has proposed is the Title X plan.

Interestingly, Nelson was talking to a Comptel audience that overall was content with the FCC's decision to impose Title II rules on incumbent broadband ISPs, particularly since the agency's order will solve service provider disputes over network interconnection.

Title X would give the FCC the authority to prevent service providers from blocking or slowing down consumer traffic to a specific website like Netflix or carving out special paid prioritization deals; the FCC would have to agree to not reclassify service providers under the Title II element of the Communications Act.

"We need to think beyond the rhetoric surrounding Title II and Section 706 that seems to have consumed everyone," Nelson said. "I am hoping we have the luxury of looking at the issue anew without being constrained by the limits of the current statutes."

While Nelson could not specifically spell out what Title X would contain, he said Congress wants to preserve two elements: protecting consumer interests and flexible regulations that can evolve to reflect current and future needs.

"If we're going to have a new statute, it's got to lay the foundation for strong net neutrality protections like those in the FCC's order," Nelson said. "Obviously, American consumers do not want their access to their websites and their services being blocked, but rather they want to know more about their Internet service and want to know more about the performance of their connection."

Nelson re-emphasized that the net neutrality rules should be flexible enough to evolve as consumers use a host of new applications and services that may not be available today.

"The second thing I am going to be looking for in this ever evolving Internet is we need a regulator who's not frozen in time," Nelson said. "This thing is going to change and the FCC must have authority that's flexible enough to respond to changing world."

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