AUGUSTA, Maine — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed Internet service providers be considered in the same category as telephone companies for regulatory oversight, a change Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, says could benefit Maine efforts to expand broadband. But Snowe said the proposal is unlikely to be adopted without substantial changes in the face of opposition from service providers.
“The Maine PUC and those in the other states could play a major role in expanding broadband access,” she said last week. “I have spoken with the chairman about his initiative and I think he realizes there may have to be another way to accomplish his goal.”
Genachowski has proposed that a section of the original 1934 telecommunications act concerning regulation of telephone companies be applied to all companies providing Internet access, no matter how they deliver that connection. That has unleashed a furious lobbying effort against the proposal by all of the providers, from land-line phone companies to cable and wireless providers.
Snowe said her “bottom line” is that service providers will not be able to regulate access to any content on the Web and that all who want it have access to the Internet. She said there are concerns that consumers, both individuals and businesses, could have their access to the Web controlled or limited by providers without ade-quate oversight.
“It may take legislation, “Snowe said. “We will have to wait and see after we review fully his proposal.”
Public Advocate Richard Davies said his office also is reviewing the proposal and agrees it could have major implications for the state in developing broadband access in rural areas.
“This is very important not only for Maine, but for the nation,” he said. “We have long been very frustrated that we have very little we can do in the area of broadband unless the regulated utilities come into the [Public Utilities] Commission for something else.”
For example, he said, when FairPoint bought Verizon’s land-line service in Maine, the PUC was able to require the company to commit to a minimum level of broadband construction with timetables for the implementation of those projects as part of the deal.
Lawmakers that oversee his office and the PUC say the FCC proposal, if adopted, is both good and bad news. The good is the state would have more say in broadband, and the bad is that with more responsibility will come more work for state agencies.
“I have no doubt that if more effort is required the PUC will adapt and do a good job,” said state Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland. He is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee. “I think the consumer protection aspect of this is very good and I think the PUC can handle it very well.”
State Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, a member of the panel, agreed. He said if Congress and the FCC want a larger state role in overseeing Internet service providers, the state can do a good job.
“There are a lot of areas in our state that do not have access to broadband now,” he said. “The state working with the FCC could do a lot to address that problem.”
Snowe said Genachowski’s proposal includes an expansion of the Universal Service Fund to provide federal aid to expand broadband access as it has done for rural phone service. She said that would be very important for rural states such as Maine to build broadband infrastructure. The fund depends on a charge assessed on every phone line.
Many broadband providers do not want to have to collect the charge on Internet service and they do not want FCC oversight. Steve Largent, president of CTIA, the wireless companies’ trade organization, said the proposal would hurt the competition among providers.
“This complex, interdependent ecosystem is currently thriving to the benefit of all Americans,” he said in a statement. “Putting that success at risk is unnecessary and dangerous, particularly in today’s economic environment.”
Other trade groups opposed the move and questioned whether the FCC could make the move without congressional authority. National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow said the system is working and does not need to be changed.
“We firmly believe that the case for new regulation of the Internet has not been made,” he said. “Today’s competitive and dynamic broadband marketplace already operates according to openness principles that have broad industry consensus and serve consumers well.”
Snowe is not convinced. She said oversight of the telecommunications industry needs to catch up with the reality of today.
“We are moving towards broadband as the way everything is delivered, whether it is by a wire, like a phone, or is wireless,” she said. “We have to keep up with what is changing in this fast-changing area.”