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Thune expects legislative solution to net neutrality

According to Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the future of net neutrality will be decided by Congress, not the FCC.

Speaking during the State of the Net internet policy conference on Jan. 23, Thune laid out his legislative agenda when it comes to the communications sector, including a solution for protecting an Open Internet.

"We need clear and reasonable rules for the digital road that Internet companies, broadband providers, and end users can easily understand," Thune said. "For people to get the maximum benefit possible from the Internet, they need certainty about what the rules are, and most importantly, what the rules will be in the coming years."

In 2015, Thune and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., put forward draft legislation that would replace the FCC's Open Internet Order by overturning the reclassification of broadband service providers while keeping the net neutrality rules in place. The legislation never made it past the draft phase. Thune is chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, while Walden is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"I have worked with my colleagues over the last two years to find a legislative solution, and while we haven't gotten there yet, I remain committed to the cause," Thune said, adding that the recent change to a Republican-led FCC might prompt some Congressional Democrats to commit to a legislative approach.

Before stepping down from the FCC, former Chairman Tom Wheeler addressed the possibility of a legislative solution, acknowledging that Congress "has the ability to completely redefine just what constitutes net neutrality."

But he warned that any bill that preserves net neutrality rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization is "an empty promise if it is not accompanied by the authority to comprehensively protect against the power of broadband gatekeepers."

Other items on Thune's agenda for this Congressional session include passing the MOBILE NOW Act. The bill would require the government to live up to a 2010 executive order, which set a goal of making 500 MHz of federal spectrum available for private sector use by 2020. It would also require federal agencies to make decisions on applications and permit requests for placing wireless infrastructure on federal property in a timely matter; and it includes a statement of policy that allows for the adoption of "dig once" policies by federal agencies.

Dig once policies lower the cost of broadband deployment by providing internet companies access to federal-owned rights of way. This means when construction crews are building or repairing roads, they also may install a broadband conduit or pipe at the same time.

The MOBILE NOW Act was introduced in the Senate on Jan. 3 and approved by Thune's Commerce Committee on Jan. 24. The bill still needs approval from the House.

Separately, Thune said he will work to make sure broadband is included in any larger infrastructure package put forward under President Donald Trump, and he plans to work on new laws centered on the FCC.

The Senate Commerce Committee on Jan. 24 approved the Federal Communications Commission Consolidated Reporting Act, which would require the FCC to publish reports every two years assessing the competition in the communications marketplace and outlining its agenda. The House passed its own version of the same bill Jan. 23, though the two versions still need to be reconciled before the bill can be sent to the White House.