South Dakota Senator could lead Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee

Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — U.S. Sen. John Thune could play a pivotal role in shaping the future of internet access in America should he become the head of the powerful U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Thune could take on the lead role at a time when residents in even the most isolated parts of country demand faster Internet connection, the Argus Leader reported Sunday. But whether he takes charge of the committee or remains the second in command depends on Republicans winning control of the U.S. Senate this November.

Thune says telecommunications reforms are “long overdue” and would be a “high priority” if he were chairman of the Senate committee, which has jurisdiction over issues including highways, space, product safety and insurance. Thune could oversee changes to the country’s communication law that has been criticized for failing to keep up with innovation in cable, telephone and Internet.

How the Telecommunications Act that was signed into law in 1934 is changed and which companies are affected could spur or deter investments in new technologies and affect millions of customers.

“Don’t look at this as a national issue that doesn’t affect South Dakota, for crying out loud,” said David Owen, president of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We can’t go thinking it doesn’t matter here. It matters very much to South Dakota, and people need to pay attention to it.”

The last drastic revision of the law occurred in 1996, when the majority of Internet customers in the U.S. used a clunky dial-up connection and very few had a mobile device. U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, who’s retiring at the end of the year, was the chairman of the committee in 1995 and 1996.

Owen said to regulations must carefully balance South Dakota’s growing demand for faster connections, but must also avoid placing onerous rules on service providers.

Thune said the outdated law has led to a number of legal challenges and uncertainty for the Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for interpreting today’s technologies, but has to do so with the antiquated framework. Thune said Congress must “do a better job” modernizing the law given the new digital age.

“There is a marketplace out there that is kind of clamoring for clarity and for getting away from the ambiguity that is leading to all these legal challenges and for Congress to at least set some general parameters,” Thune said.

The GOP needs a net gain of six seats in the Senate to win the majority. One of the seats they hope to take in that of South Dakota’s retiring Democratic Sen. Johnson. Former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds is the front-runner to win Johnson’s seat in November.