TR Daily Broadband, Lack of Agency Input Discussed at Hearing on NTIA Draft Bill
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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Broadband, Lack of Agency Input Discussed at Hearing on NTIA Draft Bill

Along with substantives issues related to improving the national broadband map, closing the digital divide, boosting spectrum allocations for commercial networks, and addressing cybersecurity, lawmakers participating in today’s House communications and technology subcommittee hearing on a draft bill to reauthorize the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for the first time since 1992 raised concerns about the lack of a current agency official to answer questions and sought input from the witnesses — who included two former NTIA administrators — about the potential benefits of elevating the NTIA head from assistant secretary to under secretary.

The draft NTIA reauthorization bill released last week (TR Daily, June 19) would, among other things, establish an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within NTIA and task it with engaging in broadband access outreach to communities, tracking federal broadband funding, and coordinating with other government agencies to streamline and standardize broadband support applications. The bill also would direct the office, the FCC, and other agencies offering broadband support to coordinate their efforts “to ensure that support is being distributed in an efficient manner, in a financial sustainable manner, with the goal of serving the largest number of persons in the United States while promoting the most job and economic growth for all residents of the United States.”

The draft bill would authorize $50.8 million for fiscal years 2019 to 2021 for NTIA. It also would direct NTIA to carry out the broadband inventory map provision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The agency discontinued its work on the map when the Recovery Act funding for that purpose ran out, and the FCC took over the map, populating it with carrier-reported data that has been widely criticized by lawmakers and others as inaccurate.

The draft bill would also direct the Government Accountability Office to complete a report within 180 days “on the advanced location technologies available from mobile device manufacturers and entities that design or otherwise provide operating systems for mobile devices to improve emergency response efforts and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of 9–1–1 emergency communications systems. Such report shall include information that will assist the efforts of the NTIA to advance the Nation’s public safety answering points (as defined in section 222 of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 222)) in transitioning to Next Generation 9–1–1 services (as defined in section 158 of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Organization Act (47 9 U.S.C. 942)).”

The bill also would express the sense of Congress “that the NTIA should coordinate a forward-looking Federal response to cybersecurity threats to, and supply chain vulnerabilities in, communications networks” and that that “NTIA should work to ensure that (1) the multistakeholder model of internet governance maintains the security, stability, and resiliency of the internet domain name system; and (2) new laws and regulations around the world do not undermine the WHOIS service, or any successor thereof.”

In her opening statement at today’s hearing, subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) said that the reauthorization legislation is “focused” on giving NTIA the “authorities and resources” needed to “get to work” on “two important bipartisan issues,” coordinating federal spending on rural broadband and improving the data in the national broadband map.

In his opening statement, Rep. Mike Doyle (D., Pa.), the subcommittee’s ranking minority member, urged the inclusion of the Advancing Innovation and Reinvigorating Widespread Access to Viable Electromagnetic Spectrum (AIRWAVES) Act (HR 4953/S 1682), which would establish a pipeline of licensed and unlicensed spectrum and require that 10% of proceeds from auctions be used for wireless infrastructure deployment in rural areas.

Rep. Doyle and his colleague Leonard Lance (R., N.J.) are co-sponsors of the House version of the bill. Sens. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.) and Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.) co-sponsored the Senate version (TR Daily, Aug. 1, 2017).

“I think it merits consideration by this subcommittee,” Rep. Doyle said.

He said he was “happy” the draft reauthorization legislation includes the provisions of the Advancing Critical Connectivity Expands Service, Small Businesses Resources, Opportunities, Access, and Data Based on Assessed Need and Demand (ACCESS BROADBAND) Act (HR 3994), which Rep. Lance co-sponsored with Rep. Paul Tonko (D., N.Y.). The ACCESS BROADBAND Act is the source of the draft reauthorization bill’s provisions on creating an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within NTIA. The subcommittee approved the ACCESS BROADBAND Act last week (TR Daily, June 13).

Mr. Doyle also called for additional funding to support the deployment of rural broadband infrastructure.

And he said that the “debacle” related to areas deemed served by broadband for the purposes of the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II support demonstrates the need to improve broadband mapping data.

In his opening statement, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.), the ranking minority member of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was “disappointed that the majority circulated a draft bill that does little more than reintroduce the ACCESS BROADBAND Act that has already been approved” by the subcommittee. He added, “I hope this isn’t an effort to strip the bill away from Mr. Tonko.”

Rep. Pallone also noted the absence of a witness from NTIA. “Before we move ahead with legislation, we need the current administration’s views on the draft,” he said.

Mr. Pallone also spoke out against high pay phone charges at facilities where immigrants and asylum seekers are being held, and said he would be introducing a bill to address the issue (see separate story).

Witness Mike Gallagher, the president and chief executive officer of the Entertainment Software Association, who testified in his capacity as a former NTIA administrator during the George W. Bush administration, said he wanted to “focus on two issues that are particularly important to NTIA’s mission going forward: (1) improving rural broadband access, including by expanding the availability of spectrum for commercial use, and (2) ensuring the continued availability of Whois, a transparency tool that is vital to law enforcement, consumer protection, and intellectual property rights in the Internet ecosystem.”

John Kneuer, the president of JKC Consulting, who also testified in his capacity as a former NTIA administrator during the George W. Bush administration, said that NTIA’s “valuable expertise in coordinating inter-agency equities in the service of broader government priorities … is most relevant to the draft legislation under consideration,” rather than NTIA’s technical expertise.

For example, NTIA’s experience in coordinating with other agencies on “large scale infrastructure grant programs” such as the Public Safety Interoperability Communications (PSIC) grant program or the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) “should enable NTIA to effectively coordinate the broadband map as well as the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth.”

Regarding the provision in the draft reauthorization legislation stating the sense of Congress regarding cyber security threats to the communications supply chain, Mr. Kneuer said, “NTIA is particularly well-suited to engage in these important matters that cut across commercial interests as well as important government equities. By providing the perspective of industry into the inter-agency process, NTIA can help bridge the gap between the executive branch interests with national and homeland security responsibilities and key private sector interests so that they all support our collective cyber-defenses. Similarly, NTIA can serve as a conduit from government agencies with cyber responsibilities to the private sector to ensure that information flows in both directions to maximum affect.”

Regarding the draft bill’s provisions on the sense of Congress regarding the preservation of the Internet domain name system and WHOIS service, Mr. Kneuer said, “Historically, NTIA has been the [U.S. government] entity in charge of protecting WHOIS obligations through its oversight of [Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers]. With the transition of the [Internet Assigned Numbers Authority] contract in 2016 ICANN remains U.S.-based and subject to U.S. laws. NTIA is the proper repository for the policy coordination and advocacy before ICANN and is the best suited agency to represent US equities.”

Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Consulting and CEO of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, said, “In sum, what I suggest to you today is not only that NTIA has a critically important role to fill in improving the broadband environment nationally, but also that it has unique expertise and experience within the federal government in order to do so.” She offered examples of BTOP projects administered by NTIA that brought broadband to underserved communities.

In her questioning of witnesses, Chairman Blackburn asked for their views on the proposed Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth.

Mr. Gallagher that “having it under one roof” would improve interagency cooperation.

Rep. Doyle asked whether the spectrum provisions of the AIRWAVES Act would help close the digital divide, and when witnesses expect the digital divide to be closed “on our current path.”

Ms. Hovis said, “On the current path, we won’t close it. In some areas we may see it increase,” because private investment will go where returns are expected to be highest.

Rep. Lance asked whether NTIA has the resources for adequate staffing of the new Internet Connectivity and Growth Office.

Mr. Kneuer said that with administration of the BTOP projects winding down, the staff that has working in that area could be reallocated to the new office.

Rep. Dave Loebsack (D., Iowa) said, “Our [broadband] coverage in Iowa isn’t anything like what the FCC says it is.” He asked where better data can be obtained.

Mr. Gallagher suggested obtaining data from phones or apps, by seeing “where people are playing Pokemon Go and where they are not.”

Rep. Bill Johnson (R., Ohio) said he had noticed a discrepancy on the national broadband map between Vermont and New Hampshire, indicating one had broadband satellite coverage and the other didn’t, which he said seemed unlikely given how close they are in longitude and latitude.

Mr. Gallagher said that the “first place to start” in improving broadband data is with a notice of inquiry “to determine the mistakes of the past and how they can be fixed.”

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D., Calif.) said that despite Chairman Blackburn’s statement that the draft bill is about bringing broadband to rural America, it “doesn’t direct the agency enough on how to use its funding” to achieve that goal.

She added, “I think it’s the first time we’ve had a hearing on reauthorization legislation without the head of the agency.” She then asked the witnesses a series of questions about NTIA’s “current plans” for improving the broadband map and its plans for allocating funding for oversight of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), noting that “nobody knows” because none of the witnesses currently works for NTIA.

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D., Calif.) asked what “specific resources” NTIA needs to carry out recommendations in its recent botnet report.

Mr. Gallagher said, “The resources are going to be needed more by those who have to implement recommendations than those who made them.”

Rep. McNerney asked how many engineers NTIA currently employees, which the witnesses did not know. He commented, “Unfortunately NTIA doesn’t have anyone here today.”

Mr. Kneuer said, “NTIA’s access to technical expertise are not limited to those within its agency,” citing NTIA’s ability to tap expertise at other agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology or the National Security Agency.

In response to a question from Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.) about the causes of and solutions for the digital divide, Mr. Gallagher said, “The solution will be wireless. It will be lower cost per person or per data bit.”

Ms. Hovis said she agreed, but added that “there is no rural wireless without a wire to support it.”

Rep. Brett Guthrie (R., Ky.) asked if it would “help” to elevate the NTIA administrator to under secretary.

Mr. Kneuer said that the assistant secretary who heads NTIA already functions essentially as an under secretary, since there is no under secretary between the NTIA head and the secretary of Commerce. However, he said, “it would be directionally helpful in syncing up with other agencies.”

Rep. John Shimkus (R., Ill.) asked whether the suggested title change would help the NTIA administrator in the “international aspects” of the job.

Mr. Kneuer said, “I think it’s more important in the international aspect” and that it would give foreign officials more “clarity” about the position of the NTIA head.

Mr. Gallagher said, “I think 90% of the benefit comes internationally.”

In a statement released after the hearing, Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of the U.S. Telecom Association, said, “Today’s hearing reaffirmed the critical role NTIA plays in facilitating broadband deployment and connecting communities across America. From identifying unserved and underserved areas through broadband mapping, to coordinating funding opportunities with various federal agencies, reauthorizing NTIA to continue these efforts will further support broadband deployment by helping to bridge the digital divide without wastefully duplicating private investment already underway.”

Mr. Spalter added, “We thank the members of the Communications and Technology subcommittee for their leadership and for once again focusing on the need for federal government coordination of broadband deployment efforts through NTIA.”

In a statement released this morning ahead of the hearing, Computer & Communications Industry Association President and CEO Ed Black said, “CCIA welcomes the Energy & Commerce Committee’s plans to reauthorize the NTIA, which has not been accomplished in nearly a quarter century. As the President’s principal adviser on telecommunications and information policies, NTIA plays important roles in advocating for telecommunication policies around the world that promote competition and in managing federal spectrum.”

Mr. Black added, “CCIA encourages the committee to build on this discussion draft by adding the bipartisan AIRWAVES Act (H.R. 4953), which will help create a pipeline of licensed and unlicensed spectrum to promote the benefits that next-generation 5G wireless networks, and the PEERING Act (H.R. 4817), which will promote connectivity and economic development in underserved areas. Following the reauthorization of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) through RAY BAUM's Act earlier this year, CCIA encourages the Committee’s continued bipartisan efforts to push this important agency forward.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

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