WASHINGTON--Representatives from industry, government, and advocacy groups agreed on Thursday that the Internet needs to be open and widely available throughout the United States. The question is how to get there.
A newly emboldened Democratic Congress is sure to have a long wish list, including new Internet regulations that corporations believe are unwise or unnecessary. Net neutrality regulations are one possibility, as is broadband and spectrum legislation. But it's unclear where the money to pay for sweeping new projects will come from--neither tax increases nor deficit spending on tech seem that likely when a Wall Street and Detroit bailout are center stage--so today's laws and regulations may end up being extended by default.
The next Congress is sure to introduce Net neutrality legislation, a Democratic congressional staffer said Thursday. "With the Obama administration being extremely supportive of Net neutrality, we're quite excited we can actually get things done," said Frannie Wellings, telecom counsel for Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).
Speaking at a telecommunications law and policy conference hosted by the University of Nebraska College of Law, Wellings said, "We definitely feel legislation is necessary" in the area of Net neutrality. (On the other hand, the Democrats have controlled Congress for two years and have advanced precisely zero Net neutrality bills, even though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once called it a tremendously important topic.)
Representatives from the telecommunications industry insisted they have a common interest in maintaining open networks since their revenues come from carrying bits--but say that they're OK with the current state of the law. New legislation, they say, is not the way to achieve open access--and could even have adverse results.
The Federal Communications Commission's ruling against Comcast proved the commission's approach of reviewing possible Net neutrality violations on a case-by-case basis is effective, said James Cicconi, senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs for AT&T.
"The essence of network management is some form of discrimination," he said. "This really is about what's reasonable and what isn't. Discrimination that impacts consumers negatively is something unreasonable."
Cicconi said Comcast's appeal of the decision "was a mistake from many standpoints," and that a ruling in Comcast's favor would almost certainly lead to Net neutrality legislation, which would make the FCC's review of telecom practices less flexible.
Replacing a flexible, case-by-case approach to Net neutrality enforcement with a common approach "would lead to more litigation, not less," Cicconi said. (See a related CNET article about wireless Net neutrality.)
The threat of litigation against Net neutrality rules may be overblown, suggested Ben Scott, policy director of media advocacy group Free Press. He cited the news that the wireless trade association CTIA recently dropped its legal challenge to the open access conditions the FCC imposed on the C-Block spectrum Verizon purchased earlier this year. Verizon dropped its legal challenge in October.
The 111th Congress will also reintroduce legislation to promote universal broadband, Wellings said, though the need for that was also disputed.
"It's probably the case the FCC, despite the uncertainties, can probably accomplish much of the Obama administration's agenda without legislation," said Richard Wiley, a former FCC chairman who now represents telecom companies as a partner at Wiley Rein.
There was a consensus among the panelists that one significant step the Obama administration could take would be to reallocate spectrum currently appropriated to government agencies.
"The biggest reason it's a precious resource is because the government has appropriated half of it," said Cicconi.
"If we're serious about having wireless as a serious competitor to wired networks, we're going to have to find more spectrum," Scott added. "The best place I see is government allocations."
The Obama administration will also have to revamp the FCC's approach to establishing an public safety network on the D-Block, panelists said.
Cicconi called it "borderline scandalous" that Congress and the Bush administration "saddled the FCC with the conundrum of how to do it without appropriations."
The situation was analogous to giving an agency land on which to build a highway system exclusively for police cars and ambulances but expecting the agency to get private sector funding, Scott said.
"This is a great opportunity and great challenge for the Obama administration," Wiley said.
CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report