By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday asked chief executives from companies representing the two sides of the net neutrality debate, including Alphabet, Facebook, AT&T and Verizon, to testify at a Sept. 7 hearing.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is considering tossing out 2015 Obama administration net neutrality rules that reclassified internet service like a public utility. The current rules bar providers from blocking or slowing websites, or allowing websites to pay for "fast lanes" over competitors.
Internet providers and major tech companies have been sharply divided over the rules. Many internet providers want Congress to step in and write permanent rules, while websites say the Obama era rules are critical to preserving the open internet.
The outcome of the debate could have a major impact on the future of the internet economy and potentially profits of the companies involved.
Other chief executives asked to testify include the heads of Comcast Corp, Netflix Inc and Charter Communications Inc.
Several companies said they were reviewing the letter but none immediately said if they will testify.
Comcast said it welcomed the hearing and "believes the best way to stop the regulatory ping-pong on this important issue is for Congress to enact bipartisan legislation."
"A strong consensus is forming across party lines and across industries that it’s time for Congress to call a halt on the back-and-forth and set clear net neutrality ground rules for the internet,” said Representative Greg Walden, a Republican, who chairs the committee. "The time has come to get everyone to the table and get this figured out."
Democrats on the committee want Republicans to invite small businesses and consumers, not just the CEOs from some of the "largest corporations in the world with a combined market capitalization of nearly $2.5 trillion," said a statement from Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Ranking Member Mike Doyle, both Democrats. Democrats have so far refused to work with Republicans on internet legislation.
A group representing major technology firms last week urged the FCC to abandon plans to rescind the rules barring internet service providers from hindering consumer access to web content or offering paid "fast lanes."
Major internet service have urged the FCC, however, to reverse the rules, even as they vowed not to hinder internet access.
In May, the FCC voted 2-1 to advance Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's plan to withdraw the former Obama administration's order reclassifying internet service providers as if they were utilities.
The FCC is considering whether it has the authority to limit internet providers' ability to block, throttle or offer "paid prioritization," and, if so, whether it should keep any regulations in place.
More than 12 million public comments have been filed on the proposal.
The Internet Association, a group representing Facebook, Google, Microsoft Corp and Twitter Inc, said last week it was "open to alternative legal bases for the rules, either via legislative action codifying the existing net neutrality rules or via sound legal theories offered by the commission."
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by James Dalgleish)