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Washington Report: a flurry of telecom activity before election recess

By Bob Deegan, director - Government Relations

After a few weeks back in D.C. and a surprising amount of telecom activity, Congress is once again on recess until November 13 for a brief lame duck session, during which it will be tight on time to hammer out a new Appropriations bill to fund the government for the 2017 fiscal year.  While the presidential race is receiving the bulk of the attention in Washington these days, there hasn't been too much revealed about the candidates' tech platforms to date other than we can expect a continued focus on universal broadband deployment in a potential Clinton administration.

Surprise flurry of telecom activity

While there were no tech bills actually passed into law during Congress' return to D.C., there was an unexpected burst of telecom related activity, including some promising action on call completion.  

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce moved H.R. 2566, the Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act of 2016, on to the full House on September 21, following an earlier Subcommittee hearing on the issue at which Lance Miller, the president of NECA member McClure Telephone, testified about the negative effects of call failures on both his rural customers and his business. This bill would serve to stem the tide of continued call completion problems by requiring least cost routers to register with the FCC. Further, the House took necessary steps to align the text of its bill to S.827, the version already sitting before the Senate as discussed in the last issue of Access. Given the widespread bipartisan support of this bill, one would hope for a quick passage into law.

Oversight hearing focuses on partisanship

At a September 15 FCC Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing at which all five FCC Commissioners testified, the focus was on partisanship at the FCC and in Congress. Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) pointed out there have been 25 party line (that is, 3-2) votes at FCC Open Meetings during Chairman Tom Wheeler's three-year tenure versus just 14 such votes in the prior 20 years. The conversation understandably turned to the contentious issues Chairman Wheeler is trying to complete before a new administration takes over, such as the set-top-box, ISP privacy and business data services proposals. 

On the Democratic side, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and many others focused on the failure of the Senate GOP to confirm FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to a second term. This GOP reluctance to move on reconfirming her has resulted in a hold being placed on all telecommunications related bills coming up before the Senate. If Commissioner Rosenworcel is not confirmed during the lame duck session before the end of the year, she will be forced to vacate her office, a scenario many in both parties would see as a huge loss for the FCC.

However, the Oversight hearing wasn't all partisan doom and gloom, as the senators spent quite a bit of time discussing the continued need for improved NextGen emergency 911 services. Also, questions on the status of implementing the USF RoR Reform Order were raised by Sens. Thune and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and each Commissioner said they were working to get RLECs the information they need. Here at NECA, we can confirm that is the case as we have been working closely with FCC staff to help provide them the necessary information as required by the Order. (See Big decisions loom in presidential and universal service elections for rate-of-return carriers.)  

More surprises: Communications Act update passes House

Closing out this bustle of telecom action was the surprising passage of the Communications Act Update of 2016 by the House. However, the title of this bill is a bit of a misnomer as it doesn't solve the major issues that would come up in any rewrite of the act. In reality it combined eight separate telecom bills that have made it to the full House into one package, including bills on: rural call completion, FCC process reform, consolidated reporting, small ISP exemption from enhanced transparency rules, two emergency services issues, amateur radio and anti-spoofing. 

Due to the political issues discussed above, it is questionable whether there will be any action in the Senate on this bill. Nonetheless, legislators from both parties have recognized the need to move on some form of comprehensive Communications Act Update and feel the path may be open to do so in a new session of Congress now that net neutrality is behind us (although the lengthy appeals process still carries on). 

Leadership changes in store?

Regardless of who will be in the White House, there is potential for considerable change on the telecom front on Capitol Hill. This all starts due to term limits for the chairs of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, currently led by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology led by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). These two groups, particularly the Subcommittee, set the tech agenda for the House. Should the GOP keep control of the House next Congress it appears that Walden will be vying with Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) to chair the full Committee. Shimkus has more seniority but Walden runs the National Republican Campaign Committee responsible for helping GOP members retain the majority. He could have some pull if they are able to maintain the majority during such a contentious election. In the event the Democrats take back the House then the current ranking members of the Committee and Subcommittee, Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), seem to be in place to take over, respectively. 

On the Senate side, Thune will likely remain as chair of the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee should the GOP hold its majority. But if the Dems take over it looks like ranking members Nelson and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) will probably get the nod to chair the full Committee and the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet, respectively.  

Circuit courts address open internet, lifeline, muni broadband appeals

Also, barring any reversals of FCC decisions, a new Administration will be forced to defend current FCC actions in numerous reviews before a Federal Court of Appeals. For example, NARUC filed a Petition for Review with the D.C. Circuit Court on June 2, contesting the Lifeline Modernization Order. The FCC is still dealing with net neutrality as several industry groups have asked for an en banc review of the DC Circuit Court's Opinion upholding the Open Internet Order. However, since the last report, we know at least one appellate review is now final. On August 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit (Cincinnati) reversed the FCC's Municipal Broadband Order, saying Section 706 fell far short of giving the FCC the power to preempt states' rights in this instance. 

So, get ready for an interesting and possibly wild ride to the end of the year depending on what happens in early November. For the time being we can still hold out hope there will be some post-election action in Congress on telecom related bills, such as call completion, before Congress adjourns in mid-December for the holidays. They'll regroup in January when the 115th Congress convenes. In the meantime, you can keep up with the latest DC news by visiting our Federal Scene page.  

Filed under October 2016, Tagged with Congress, FCC

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