The previous two decades have witnessed a remarkable transformation of our communications infrastructure. The legal and regulatory framework under which these services are provided, however, has not always kept pace with innovation. It was 1996 the last time that Congress addressed these issues with comprehensive legislation.
In 1996, Congress passed the then-landmark Telecommunications Reform Act to modernize communications law and prepare the regulatory environment for new technologies while ushering in an era of competition and innovation. The Act had numerous successes. It paved the way for robust competition in the telephone market, bringing about marked declines in long distance phone call costs. The legislation's insistence that wireless communications be left unregulated in order to allow the cell phone industry to gain a foothold helped to foster a veritable revolution in how people communicate with family, friends, and business associates.
The Telecommunications Reform Act had its failures as well. Drafted during the early years of the Internet's development, the Act didn't anticipate the growth, both in terms of impact and economic importance, of the Web. Almost immediately after the passage of the 1996 Act, Internet usage experienced explosive growth, and it is difficult to imagine a comprehensive telecommunications bill today without a major focus on Internet policy. While the 1996 Act's silence on the Internet has not prevented the Web's dynamic development, it has created an atmosphere of ambiguity surrounding the government's regulatory stance.
Technology has continued to evolve, serving to illuminate gaps and overlaps in our regulatory framework. Various telecommunications issues will need to be addressed in the near future. Broadband Internet deployment will be a major issue as policymakers work to encourage the continuing access to fast Internet connections in rural and low-income areas where development has been slow. Potential regulation of Internet service providers may also be on the agenda, with some observers suggesting that the nation's leading providers have gained anticompetitive power over the Internet, while others believe the issue is one in search of a problem. (See section below on Net Neutrality)
As part of the 2009 economic stimulus legislation, Congress asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to report to the House and the Senate on broadband access across the country. This report, "The National Broadband Plan" , addressed the means of extending broadband connectivity to all U.S. residents and established benchmarks for meeting that goal. It is an extensive and ambitious document, but it remains a report to Congress without a life of its own. It should, nevertheless, be a valuable resource once Congress takes up the many issues discussed in its pages.
Competition in the multichannel television market remains an issue. Direct broadcast satellite television has maintained and expanded its footprint as a competitor to cable systems, but ground based competition has been slow to develop. Consumers have long chafed at the lack of choice, and during the 109th Congress the House passed legislation to facilitate local cable competition through a national franchise mechanism. The Senate did not take up the issue, and video franchise legislation remains to be considered.
Throughout this period of growth and development, Rep. Petri has been guided by the view that competition is a key element in providing lower prices and innovative services. There are times, however, when government must become involved in outlining ground rules to ensure that the benefits continue to accrue to the general public.
One of the more contentious Internet-related issues is "net neutrality." This term refers to a broadly shared desire to maintain free access to the now familiar Internet experience. Some have argued that the federal government should enforce rules so that large broadband Internet service providers, such as telephone and cable television companies, are prevented from limiting access to content provided by competing firms. Others oppose the imposition of such rules, arguing that current practices do not merit strict regulation and that overregulation of the Internet could hinder investment in innovation and infrastructure.
Most recently, after withdrawing its effort to reclassify broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service due to substantial congressional opposition, the FCC, on December 21, 2010, adopted its Open Network Order establishing a framework for regulating Internet network management. In general, the FCC's policy requires network operators to disclose information concerning network management practices; prohibits these operators from blocking lawful content, applications, services, and non-harmful devices; and establishes a "no unreasonable discrimination" rule governing the treatment of network traffic.
Given the ruling of a federal court concerning an earlier version of FCC imposed network standards, it is unclear whether the Commission has the legal authority to enforce this Order. For this reason and others, the Commission's action is controversial. On February 17, 2011, during consideration of H.R. 1, a bill to fund the government for the remainder of 2011, the House adopted an amendment, by a vote of 244 - 181, to prohibit the FCC from using any funds to implement this Open Network Order. H.R. 1 was not considered by the Senate. On April 8, 2011, the House considered H.J. Res. 37, a resolution disapproving and rendering without effect the FCC's Open Internet Order. H.J. Res. 37 was approved by a vote of 240 - 179 and referred to the Senate for further consideration. Rep. Petri voted in support of both of these initiatives.