The push to write a narrowly focused telecommunications bill that could be fast-tracked through Congress this fall was dealt a major blow on Thursday when the Federal Communications Commission suspended its series of private talks with stakeholders and an influential Democratic senator conceded that without a consensus, advancing a near-term bill is now "unlikely."
The agency, which had been assisting lawmakers with efforts to craft an agreement clarifying how broadband should be regulated, ended its closed-door meetings after criticism erupted over reports that two key players in the discussions, Google and Verizon, were poised to cut their own deal over Internet traffic management.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is now under pressure from leading watchdog groups and some Democratic overseers to schedule commission votes on his proposals for regulating broadband after a court decision in April undermined the FCC's authority.
"As we work to find a path forward for governing broadband, congressional stalemate is making a legislative solution look increasingly unlikely in the near term," Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said in a statement.
"As a result, Chairman Genachowski is now moving forward along a regulatory path," Kerry said. This was an apparent reference to the scheduling of FCC votes on Genachowski's proposals to treat broadband as a public utility and expand "network neutrality" guidelines that would bar anticompetitive conduct.
Urging Genachowski to act quickly were House Energy and Commerce members Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Jay Inslee, D-Wash., who issued statements warning that major Internet players are seeking advantages that could harm consumers and competitors.
"I have real concerns about the reports of a potential deal between Verizon and Google on net neutrality," Eshoo said. "I believe these reported side deals by companies risk undermining [Genachowski's] efforts."
"In their effort to gain a competitive advantage in this age of media consolidation, broadband providers are attempting to create a regime that locks information away behind pay walls," Inslee cautioned. "The Federal Communications Commission must act quickly to preserve Internet freedom."
FCC Chief of Staff Edward Lazarus announced the cessation of the agency's negotiating sessions in a statement distributed by Genachowski's office. "All options remain on the table as we continue to seek broad input on this vital issue," Lazarus said.
The FCC's spokeswoman declined to comment on the chairman's next steps.
"We've told him to act quickly," Joel Kelsey, political adviser to Free Press, said of the watchdog group's message to Genachowski. "We've all seen what can happen when industry writes their own rules."
Kelsey and other critics of a possible Google-Verizon accord were worried that it would benefit only those companies -- and serve as a template for possible legislation.
While Genachowski has the votes he needs from fellow commissioners to advance both of his proposals, resistance from a growing list of Democrats in Congress -- the tally now stands at 82 with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., the latest to join -- coupled with strong GOP opposition to what Republicans call a "government takeover of the Internet," could give him pause.
"Julius is now hamstrung by the fact that the election calendar is working against him," said a telecom lobbyist. If the FCC chairman schedules the votes before Nov. 2, these issues could become election fodder, and if he holds them afterwards, he could face a backlash from a possible GOP-controlled House, the lobbyist added.
"We are disappointed that the net neutrality talks convened by the FCC have broken down," said AT&T lobbyist Jim Cicconi, in a statement.
A spokesperson for Google declined to comment, while Verizon lobbyist Tom Tauke issued a statement reaffirming the carrier's commitment to finding a solution. Both companies had strongly denied they were close to reaching a deal.
"We hope this marks the end of the era of backroom deals at the FCC," said Andy Schwartzman, policy director of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm.