Washington report: new year, new Congress, new president, new chairman
After the election lull and the lame duck session of Congress, including the stalemate on telecom legislation at the end of 2016 as a result of the dispute over Commissioner Rosenworcel's reconfirmation, it is safe to say a lot has been happening in Washington over the last several weeks.
Congress picks back up where they left off
In the new 115th Session of Congress, both chambers have reintroduced much of the bipartisan telecom legislation that died on the vine in December. As of late January two bills of significant interest to NECA members have moved forward. The Small Business Broadband Deployment Act, which would extend the small business ISP exemption for providers with fewer than 250,000 subscribers for five years, was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives on January 10, while the companion bill on the Senate side sits before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Additionally, the Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act, which among other things would require least cost routers to register with the FCC, also unanimously advanced out of the House on January 23 and out of Committee in the Senate on January 24. So, once again, it is nice to see progress on this front.
As foreshadowed in the last report, there has also been a shakeup in the leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the former Chair of the Subcommittee, was selected to chair the full Committee and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who also served on the Executive Committee of President Trump's transition team, has been tapped to lead the Subcommittee. On the Democratic side, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) will continue to be the Ranking Member of the Committee, but Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) stepped down to allow Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) to take over as Ranking Member of the Subcommittee. Over in the Senate, leadership has not changed for either party as Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) respectively remain the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation.
One of the main telecom objectives of the GOP-led Congress in 2017 will be to roll back some of the more contentious items moved through the FCC under Chairman Wheeler, such as open internet and ISP privacy rules. Other priorities will likely remain similar to past goals. In the House, there is expected to be continued focus on FCC process reform and how best to update the Communications Act. On the Senate side, Chairman Thune wants to focus on reauthorizing the FCC and negotiating a legislative solution to the open internet issue. Additionally, there has been bipartisan support on the need to improve broadband deployment to rural America. Thune has already moved the Mobile Now bill, which would boost spectrum availability for 5G wireless deployment and institutes a dig once policy to lay fiber on federally funded transportation projects, through Committee. The road to accomplish some of these goals is not smooth, but it is considerably less bumpy with a Republican sitting in the White House.
Trump telecom agenda takes shape
President Trump initially did not have much of an agenda set for telecom, other than an expressed desire for a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that would include money for broadband. On that issue, Senate Democrats were quick to come up with proposals for an infrastructure package that would include as much as $20 billion for broadband deployment. However, as time has passed, a more general deregulatory slant by the administration is starting to carry over to his telecom policy for the FCC. Prior to the inauguration, Trump assembled a five person landing team to help his administration get ready to assume responsibilities at the FCC. The members of this group, several of whom have a relationship with the American Enterprise Institute, a DC public policy think tank, have proposed a major shift in the structure of the FCC. The proposal would move away from the current silo type organization of the bureaus (Wireline, Wireless, Media, etc.) and shift FCC duties relating to competition and consumer protection to other federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission. It is likely any such plan would take an enormous amount of time and effort to implement and would likely face opposition, on some fronts, from Democrats in Congress.
From Commissioner to Chairman
Ajit Pai will lead the way with whatever happens in the new administration from a telecom perspective as President Trump elevated him from Commissioner to the FCC Chairman's role on January 23, 2017. By choosing Pai, the FCC can hit the ground running without dealing with a potentially lengthy confirmation process. In just a few days on the job, Pai has already put new acting leadership in place in the front office and the bureaus. Kris Monteith, who has held several senior positions at the FCC over the past 20 years, is the acting Chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau, which handles most of the telecom-related issues facing our members. Pai told FCC staff that one of his top priorities will be closing the digital divide for low-income and rural Americans. In doing so he pointed to his Digital Empowerment Agenda, introduced last year, which would eliminate regulatory obstacles to broadband deployment and provide tax incentives to boost network build-outs and job creation.
For NECA members, it is important to note that Chairman Pai grew up in rural Kansas so he understands the needs of rural America. This will be of great importance as the RLEC industry continues to seek ways to better serve their customers.