Washington Report: broadband, nominations and oversight

by Bob Deegan, director – Government Relations

Things have been picking up on the telecom front on Capitol Hill recently. This is probably for a variety of reasons, including: industry pressure and national press attention on issues such as rural broadband and net neutrality; speculation over a possible infrastructure package that may include funding for broadband; President Donald Trump’s nominations to the FCC, including the renomination of Jessica Rosenworcel, which removed some legislative roadblocks; and actions taken by the FCC on hot topics like net neutrality. 

Rural broadband focus

Mid-June was particularly busy with three separate Congressional hearings focusing on rural broadband and an announcement by Trump that funding for rural broadband deployment would be part of the forthcoming infrastructure proposal.

The first of those hearings was on June 27, 2017, before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet and focused on USF and rural broadband investment. Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA, was a witness and she explained how: important broadband is to the rural economy; current USF funding is insufficient, which is causing decreased investment and high costs for stand-alone broadband; and regulatory burdens such as reporting requirements and permitting processes slows progress to deployment.

These same issues were addressed in a June 29, 2017 hearing before the House Committee on Small Business Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy, and Trade by Mike Romano, senior VP of NTCA, and Dave Osborn, WTA Board Member and CEO of Valley Telephone Cooperative. Sandwiched between those two hearings was a House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hearing on June 28, 2017, focusing on the failure of the National Broadband Map to accurately reflect true areas having broadband coverage. In this hearing, Carol Mattey, former Deputy Bureau Chief of the FCC Wireline Competition Bureau, expressed her concerns about USF funding being insufficient and said if Congress does appropriate infrastructure money for broadband, the USF High Cost Fund would be the best tool to get the money working towards further deployment as quickly as possible. This is a sentiment shared by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who has repeatedly expressed his opinion that the USF HCF program is the best choice to distribute any infrastructure funds and help overcome the existing USF funding shortfalls. 

These comments on the infrastructure proposal were timely as Trump gave a speech on June 21, 2017, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he announced that funding to promote and foster enhanced broadband access for rural America would be included in his soon to be released infrastructure plan.  

There will, of course, be many challenges in getting any infrastructure plan through Congress, and for at least the short term the wind seems to have been sucked out of the room by other major issues such as healthcare and potential tax reform. However, it is still important to see that it is included in any plan from the start. Further, there is bipartisan support for rural broadband issues and hopefully that will go a long way towards freeing additional support for NECA members over the long haul.

FCC nominations

Trump also took steps to fill the two vacancies at the FCC by renominating Jessica Rosenworcel to a new term and tapping current FCC General Counsel Brendan Carr to the open GOP slot. Additionally, as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s term is currently expired, the president renominated him to an additional term.

The Senate Commerce Committee has worked to move quickly on the nominations. A July 19, 2017 hearing with the nominees went smoothly for the most part, although there was the expected concern over the open internet issue and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) expressed some unease about Carr’s independence given he has worked directly for Pai over the last several years. It is also worth noting that rural broadband issues came up several times in discussions related to the: sufficiency of USF; high cost of stand-alone broadband; need for better broadband mapping; rural call completion problem; and potential for broadband infrastructure funds.

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chair of the Committee, has scheduled an August 2, 2017 mark-up to move the nominations through the Committee and get to a vote by the full Senate quickly. If that doesn’t happen before the August recess the FCC will remain short two commissioners until at least September. 

FCC oversight

Just a week after the Senate hearing, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held its first FCC Oversight hearing since Pai took the helm in January 2017. As has been par for the course for these hearings, the main topic of the day was the Open Internet Order and Pai’s plan to roll back the reclassification of broadband via the Restoring Internet Freedom NPRM.  The open internet discussions focused on level of investment, protecting consumer interests and the widely-held belief, at least among the GOP, that legislation is the only way to stop this back-and-forth of regulations followed by litigation.

The hearing also focused on the need to reauthorize the FCC for the first time since 1990. Generally, a reauthorization bill is a way for Congress to establish the terms and conditions under which a federal agency operates, including the programs run by the agency. This is nothing new as attempts to pass a reauthorization bill have occurred over the past several sessions of Congress, including last year where a bipartisan bill addressing steps for FCC process reform was discussed.   

Efforts to deploy rural broadband were also on the docket, including the possibility of an infrastructure package and Microsoft’s recent proposal to deploy rural broadband using TV white space spectrum. Pai said the FCC was just starting to look at Microsoft’s proposal and together with O’Rielly said there was concern that use of the white space could infringe on broadcasters use of the spectrum.

Similar to the hearings mentioned above, other items of interest discussed were: regulatory burdens impeding network deployment; broadband mapping; and rural call completion and robocalls. All of these topics have been the focus of the FCC over the last several months via the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee and the FCC Open Meetings. The Open Meetings have had packed agendas each month, including the upcoming meeting for August which, while having no RLEC specific items, Pai has labeled “Rural Broadband Month.” 

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