Has Sen. John Kerry flip-flopped on regulating broadband?

Mike Riggs Contributor
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A letter from several congressmen sent to the FCC in 1998 seemingly contradicts Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s current stance on net neutrality. The letter [PDF] obtained by The Daily Caller is addressed to then-FCC Chairman William Kennard, and was sent two years after the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the largest policy overhaul of the communications industry in five decades.

“The overarching policy goal of the 1996 Act is to promote a market-driven, robustly competitive environment for all communications services,” reads the letter, which was signed by Kerry. “Given that, we wish to make it clear that nothing in the 1996 Act or its legislative history suggests that Congress intended to alter the current classification of Internet and other information services or to expand traditional telephone regulation to new and advanced services.”

The letter is especially significant considering Kerry’s stance on the issue of net neutrality, which, if enacted, could involve the reclassification of the Internet and an expansion of telephone regulation. Progressives who favor net neutrality fear the rise of a two-tiered Internet that features a modest lane for most content providers and web sites, and a parallel fast lane for companies that could afford privileged treatment from ISPs.

Industry leaders and analysts say that a prioritized lane would lead to the development of new technologies and revolutionize the way consumers enjoy media online. Progressives, however, argue that allowing companies to operate without heavy regulation could lead to a ghettoization of websites and content providers that cannot afford access to the premium system.

Among the voices decrying a less regulated Internet is Sen. Kerry.

“A win for the [telecommunication and cable companies] would mean that the FCC couldn’t protect Net Neutrality, so the telecoms could throttle traffic as they wish — it would be at their discretion,” Kerry wrote in an April op-ed for the Huffington Post.

“The FCC couldn’t help disabled people access the Internet, give public officials priority access to the network in times of emergency, or implement a national broadband plan….In short, it would take away a key check on the power of phone and cable corporations to do whatever they want with our Internet.”

Kerry has since increased public pressure on FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to move speedily towards writing and enacting a net neutrality policy. This fervor for regulation seemingly contradicts sentiments he expressed a year earlier, when the FCC was first mulling over regulations for broadband.

“Some have argued that Congress intended that the FCC’s implementing regulations be expanded to reclassify certain information service providers, specifically Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as telecommunications carriers,” reads the letter.

“Rather than expand regulation to new service providers, a critical goal of the 1996 Act was to diminish regulatory burdens as competition grew. Significantly, this goal has been the springboard for sound telecommunications policy throughout the globe, and underscores U.S. leadership in this area. The FCC should not act to alter this approach.”
A senior Democratic policy advisor in Kerry’s office denied that the senator had changed his position on the FCC’s role in regulating the Internet. “This letter was written to protect small voice over Internet protocol [VOIP] providers from being charged for payment into the universal service fund,” the advisor wrote. “At the time the companies now arguing against reclassification wanted to keep Vonage, Skype and others from providing phone service and were trying to do it by imposing new costs on them. We were trying to incent new competition and allow a nascent service and industry to grow.”

Likewise, Kerry spokesperson, Jodi Seth, told The Daily Caller that “Sen. Kerry’s position remains the same” as in 1998: “Neither the government nor concentrated market gatekeepers should hinder innovation at the edge of the network or create new barriers to entry for startup services.”

While VOIP was indeed a hot topic in the late 90s, the “emerging service” the FCC was the most concerned with at the time was broadband, as evidenced by FCC working papers published at the end of the last decade.