Washington Report: privacy, budgeting and change at the Commission

by Bob Deegan, director – Government Relations

The Washington tech and telecom world is still caught up in the Facebook frenzy that led up to and followed CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony a few weeks back. Not surprisingly, this has ignited significant interest in privacy issues, which will be important to follow moving forward. Of particular interest will be to see if Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s (R-Tenn.) BROWSER Act, which would apply privacy rules to both ISPs as well as edge providers such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, starts to gain traction after sitting in limbo for months.

Call completion buzz continues

Notwithstanding the current tech focus, Congress was busy pushing through several telecom bills signed into law by President Trump. One notable signing was the Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act of 2017, the focus of efforts by RLECs and the rural associations through at least two sessions of Congress. In short, the law requires intermediate providers, or least cost routers, to register with the FCC and comply with service quality standards that will be established by the Commission. Further, covered providers — large long-distance providers making the initial call path choice — will only be able to use intermediate providers that have registered with the FCC. For its part, the Commission released a Report and Order and FNPRM on April 17, eliminating the current call completion reporting requirements in favor of new monitoring obligations for covered providers and seeking comment on how best to implement the rural call completion law’s requirements.

RAY BAUM Act is comprehensive package of bills

Congress successfully packaged together several bipartisan bills and included them in the omnibus spending bill that was signed on March 23. Just as with call completion, most of the bills passed have been around in one form or another for several sessions of Congress and they wisely took the opportunity to use the spending bill to move forward some noncontroversial items. Congress named the package of bills after House Energy and Commerce Committee Staff Director and former Oregon Public Utility Commission Chairman Ray Baum, who lost his battle with cancer in February. Baum was very influential in telecom circles and was a longtime friend of Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). Among other things, the RAY BAUM Act: reauthorizes the FCC for the first time since 1990; initiates some FCC process reforms; has provisions for emergency service in a natural disaster; helps 5G deployment by identifying available spectrum and easing hurdles to network construction; takes steps to consolidate FCC reporting requirements; and helps the FCC battle illegal call issues, such as spoofing.

Budget and broadband funding also addressed

Of course, the omnibus spending bill also dealt with budget issues and $322 million was allotted for the FCC budget. While this constitutes about five percent less than the FCC’s existing budget, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has declared the FCC can “do more with less.”

Additionally, over $600 million was included for the Rural Utilities Service to conduct a new broadband loan and grant pilot program. Per the bill’s language, these grants or loans would require at least 90 percent of locations served be in a rural area without sufficient broadband. Also, overbuilding would be prohibited and use of funds for administrative expenses would be limited.  

In a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government on April 26, Pai discussed the need to work closely with RUS to ensure there is no duplicative funding with universal service support. 

Clyburn to leave the Commission

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn announced she would be leaving prior to the next FCC Open Meeting on May 10. Clyburn has been active in rural telecom issues for almost 20 years, which includes over a decade at the South Carolina PUC and the last nine years at the FCC. President Trump has not yet nominated her replacement, although all signs are pointing to Geoffrey Starks, an assistant chief in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. 

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