Broadband Regulation Lingers in Congress

The long, wonky debate has real relevance for how low-income Web users get online.

By Jamilah King Jul 14, 2010

Another day, another Capitol Hill squabble over who gets to have the final say in broadband regulation. This week, House Majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) offered his support for Congressional lawmakers–and not the FCC–to clarify rules surrounding whether broadband service should be regulated, and who has the authority to decide. The decision has been a hot issue ever since a federal court ruled in April that the FCC didn’t have the authority to fully regulate broadband service. The Democrat-led FCC then [pushed to reclassify broadband as a communication service ]( in order to regain its own authority, but advocates on both sides of the issue say that Chairman Julius Genachowski’s "[third way](" doesn’t do enough to settle the matter. Hoyer’s spokesperson Katie Grant [told The Hill]( this week, "The FCC has itself acknowledged that it must walk a very careful legal path as it develops a reclassification plan, which underscores the utility of also having Congress … legislate a consensus approach." A "consensus approach" may be tough to get. What’s ultimately at stake is the future of the country’s communications infrastructure. All sides agree that high-speed Internet access isn’t just a luxury, but a vital tool to connect to job opportunities and education. Advocates of regulation, known as "net neutrality," say users risk losing equitable access and freedom of speech if telecom companies try to cash in on content. Companies like Verizon and AT&T, on the other hand, have been quick to dismiss these claims and avoid fixing something that, at least on the surface, doesn’t appear to be broken. They’ve also asserted that new regulation will drive up costs, which will push down access. Recently released data shows that while Blacks and Latinos are [phoning across the digital divide,]( home-based broadband access remains too costly for most low-income users, who often rely on public libraries and community centers. But even when low-income users could afford broadband, poor service and hidden fees made it a difficult investment. Meanwhile, a [new report]( by the Social Service Research Council even found that access to high speed Internet is rated more important than having landline phones at this point. While his office wouldn’t publicly endorse the FCC’s reclassification plans, Hoyer’s support for a legislative process aligns with positions already taken by AT&T and Verizon. Both companies have previously said an FCC process wouldn’t stand up in court.