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Net neutrality 2.0

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Now that the Federal Communications Commission is back up to its full complement of commissioners, the telecommunications policy world can get on with the real business of fighting over net neutrality.

The D.C. Circuit court, which has been considering Verizon’s challenge to the FCC’s net neutrality rules, is expected to issue its ruling sometime this month or next. However it comes out, though, the ruling will only be the official opening bell for the policy scramble and political battle that will surely follow.

Key players, in fact, are already gearing up. On Tuesday the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced plans for a major overhaul of the Communications Act, which, among other things, provides the statutory foundation to the FCC’s regulatory authority. The Act, which dates to 1934, was last updated in 1996, a time when, as Communications and Technology subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) put it, “56 kilobits per second via dial-up modem was state of the art.”

Although the committee didn’t say as much in its announcement (made via Google Plus Hangout), the FCC’s net neutrality rules have been in the cross-hairs of the Republican-controlled House since they took effect and are likely to be a top agenda-item for the committee as it undertakes the overhaul (a process that is expected to take several years). The GOP members of the committee were joined at the announcement, in fact, by former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, who has been a vocal critic of the rules and voted against them while at the agency.

Over in the Democratic-controlled Senate, meanwhile, Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) recently introduced a bill that would, in effect, extend net neutrality’s anti-discrimination principle to interconnection points between network operators, rather than merely to last-mile ISPs. That idea is almost certainly a non-starter in the GOP House, but the conflicting legislative priorities illustrates the deep divisions in Congress over the issue.

New FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, meanwhile, managed to spook net neutrality proponents Monday in his first extended public comments since taking over the agency. Wheeler paid lip service to the net neutrality rules in his prepared remarks, noting “the right of access [to the network] also means the ability of users to access all lawful content on a network.” But in response to a question regarding usage-based pricing and data caps following his speech, he appeared to endorse pay-to-play fast lanes on the internet, which the current rules discourage.

“I think that we’re seeing the market evolve in such a way that there will be variations in pricing, there will be variations in service and, as I said, I’m a firm believer in the market,” he said. But, he added, “I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say ‘well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that you might receive, my subscriber might receive, the best possible transmission of this movie.’  I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve.”

Here we go…