Washington Report: infrastructure and net neutrality

by Bob Deegan, director – Government Relations

Washington has been abuzz with a looming infrastructure plan, broadband funding issues and, as you may have guessed, net neutrality.

White House may soon release an infrastructure plan

In anticipation of a Trump administration infrastructure plan possibly to be released during the first quarter of 2018, infrastructure has been a big topic on the telecom front in Washington. 

Things have been particularly busy in the House of Representatives, where 21 bills and four resolutions on telecom-related infrastructure issues have been introduced by members of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology for tackling obstacles to broadband deployment, such as speeding up the permitting process. These bills were also discussed in a hearing on January 30, titled “Closing the Digital Divide: Broadband Infrastructure Solutions.”  

Most of the attention at the hearing was given to three main issues: 

  • The need for direct funding for broadband. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said absent funding there would be no broadband as the economic case for private investment in some unserved areas is not there. 

  • The need for an accurate broadband map. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) stated to make sure public money is spent wisely he needs to know what areas are unserved. In response to a question on mapping from Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa), Jonathan Spalter, CEO of USTelecom, noted “what you can’t measure, you can’t manage.” 

  • The need to ease permitting and regulatory burdens. Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, gave an example of how Wyoming treated permitting for a broadband conduit the same as an oil pipeline. She also noted many rural areas have short windows for construction due to weather constraints.  

Senate and House caucuses discuss broadband funding  

In addition to being discussed at the hearing, Congress has been pushing the administration to include direct funding for broadband into any infrastructure proposal: 

  • The five bipartisan co-chairs of the Senate Broadband Caucus sent a letter to President Trump on January 17, noting that policies to help streamline investment and construction of broadband networks will help but such policies should be in addition to direct federal investments to bring telecommunications infrastructure to unserved consumers in rural low-density parts of the country. 

  • Following press reports that the infrastructure proposal may not include specific funding for broadband, the six co-chairs of the House Rural Broadband Caucus followed suit with their letter on January 23, noting support for specific funding for rural broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas.

Despite reports the infrastructure plan may not include direct broadband funding, it is important to note the plan has not officially been released and the rural telecommunications associations and many of your representatives in Congress have not taken their foot off the gas. If not included in the infrastructure package, these efforts have at least made some headway at the FCC, where an order to provide a combined $500 million in additional USF funding to legacy and A-CAM RLECs is currently on circulation. 

Restoring internet freedom

Net neutrality is still rearing its head as we move into 2018. The FCC released the Restoring Internet Freedom Order on January 4, which eliminated the bright-line net neutrality rules along with rolling back the reclassification of broadband internet access service as a Title II telecommunications service. The Order, however, continues to allow carriers the choice to offer broadband transmission services via tariff or on a non-tariffed basis, or to offer the fully packaged retail internet access service as an information service.

Even as the Order awaits publication in the Federal Register, which signals the time when official oppositions can start, parties, including a group of 21 state attorneys general, have begun to file Petitions for Review of the Order with the D.C. Circuit of U.S. Court of Appeals. Not to be outdone, members in both chambers of Congress have announced efforts to repeal the Order using the Congressional Review Act. This is the same process used to eliminate the FCC’s ISP Privacy Order last year. However, in this instance, the White House has already indicated President Trump would veto any CRA resolutions related to Chairman Pai’s net neutrality order. 

Some states are also moving forward with attempts to implement their own specialized net neutrality rules, despite the Order language indicating such state efforts could be preempted. Additionally, the governors of New York and Montana signed executive orders barring their state governments from entering contracts for internet service unless the provider has agreed to adhere to certain net neutrality principles, and a number of state legislatures have introduced net neutrality bills as well. It looks clear that we remain stuck with some level of uncertainty on this issue for the long haul.

Carr is re-nominated

On January 8, President Trump re-nominated Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr to a second term. Carr’s current term expires in June, although rules allow him to remain until approximately January 3, 2020. The re-nomination cleared the Senate Commerce Committee on a 14-13 party line vote on January 18. However, the full Senate is not expected to hold a confirmation vote in the near future and it could possibly hold out until an eventual replacement for Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, whose term is expired and can only remain at the FCC through the end of the year, is nominated. 

News filter