The House Energy and Commerce Committee today approved by voice vote bipartisan legislation (HR 4986) that would reauthorize the FCC for the first time in more than a quarter century and implement a number of agency process reforms. The bill would also authorize additional funding for the post-incentive auction repacking of full-power TV stations as well as authorize funding for low-power TV, TV translator, and FM radio stations, as well as consumer education.
The measure also would allow the FCC to put auction deposits into the U.S. Treasury rather than an interest-bearing account, which would clear the way for the agency to resume holding auctions.
The committee approved an amendment in the nature of a substitute named for Ray Baum, the committee staff director who died last week of cancer (TR Daily, Feb. 9). It would rename the bill from the FCC Reauthorization Act of 2018 to the Repack Airwaves Yielding Better Access for Users of Modern Services Act of 2018, or the RAY BAUM’S Act of 2018.
There was no specific mention during today’s markup of the failure to include provisions in the bill from the MOBILE NOW Act (S 19), which passed the Senate last August (TR Daily, Aug. 3, 2017), as the committee had indicated earlier this week that it planned to do (TR Daily, Feb. 12).
“Although it did not make it into this legislation, we’re continuing to work with our Senate colleagues on this issue,” a committee spokesperson said yesterday of the MOBILE NOW Act language.
The measure approved today includes text from a dozen bills, including the Federal Communications Commission Consolidated Reporting Act of 2017 (HR 599), the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act of 2017 (HR 290), the Securing Access to Networks in Disaster Act (SANDy Act) (HR 588), and the Federal Anti-Spoofing Act of 2017 (HR 423).
The bill would reauthorize the FCC and authorize $322 million in appropriations for fiscal years 2019 and 2020, require the FCC to post on its website documents being considered and circulate them 21 days before any action, consolidate redundant FCC reports, establish an independent FCC inspector general, elevate the chief information officer role, prohibit spoofed calls or texts that originate outside of the U.S. and set an 18-month shot clock for an FCC rulemaking, require the FCC to prepare a report on the promote of broadband services for veterans, require the agency to establish a methodology on the collection of mobile service coverage, mandate the conclusion of a proceeding within 18 months requiring call location information to be conveyed with 911 calls, require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to study ways the Commission can coordinate interagency actions in the wake of cybersecurity incidents, require the Commission to prepare a report on broadband coverage in tribal country and adopt rules to address unserved tribal areas, and allow a bipartisan majority of Commissioners to meet to discuss official business as long as they don’t vote on anything and the meeting is disclosed.
“By making sure we properly relocate broadcasters displaced in the incentive auction, we add further legitimacy to future spectrum actions and other improvements in communications policy,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.), chairman of the committee. The $1.75 billion already reserved by Congress for the repack is not expected to be enough, and it doesn’t cover LPTV stations and radio stations.
“The legislation before us today, with our bipartisan amendments, is better as a result of our work together,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.), ranking member of the committee.
“The Manager’s Amendment includes text that will finally protect television viewers and radio listeners during the incentive auction repack. I’ve been working hard to solve this problem since last Congress, and I’m pleased this Committee is finally acting. We have to ensure that all Americans have access to their local broadcast stations during the repack,” Mr. Pallone added. “During the Subcommittee markup, I made clear that protecting viewers was a prerequisite for me to move forward with reauthorizing the FCC at Full Committee, and I appreciate the bipartisan work that got us here today.”
Mr. Pallone asked for Mr. Walden’s commitment to ask congressional appropriators to reserve repacking funds for TV and radio stations.
Mr. Walden did so, saying that the bill approved today “opens the door for that.”
“I secured some level of commitment all up and down the appropriator food chain,” he added.
The amendment in the nature of a substitute replaced a bill introduced last week by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), chairman of the communications and technology subcommittee. The communications subcommittee approved by voice vote a discussion draft of the legislation last October (TR Daily, Oct. 11, 2017).
Ms. Blackburn and other lawmakers stressed the bipartisan cooperation that led to the bill approved today. “We’ve got a couple of outstanding issues that we’re working on,” she said, citing discussions with Reps. Ben Lujan (D., N.M.) and Paul Tonko (D., N.Y.).
Rep. Bob Latta (R., Ohio) and Kurt Schrader (D., Ore.) expressed disappointment that the Small Entity Regulatory Relief Opportunity (SERRO) Act (HR 3787) was not included in the bill approved today. They said they would continue to push for it. “It really shouldn’t be controversial, in our opinion,” Rep. Schrader said.
“We’ll continue the discussion,” replied Chairman Walden.
Rep. Bill Flores (R., Tex.) said he hopes the final bill includes funding for radio stations in addition to FM stations, noting that his Radio Consumer Protection Act of 2017 (HR 3685) included those additional stations.
Reps. Mike Doyle (D., Pa.), the ranking member of the communications subcommittee, bemoaned the FCC’s restoring Internet freedom order and actions or planned actions on business data services and the Lifeline program.
Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.) also complained about the FCC’s Internet freedom order and said the committee must do more to ensure rural areas get broadband services.
Mr. Walden said he agreed, adding that he made that case during a meeting that lawmakers had today with President Trump on an infrastructure plan (see separate story). “We’ve got to find the path forward here,” he said.
Left out of the amendment approved today was the text of the Amateur Radio Parity Act of 2017 (HR 555), which had been in the version of the bill introduced by Ms. Blackburn last week and the discussion draft.
“It is our understanding that the leadership of both Committees were seeking a bill that would be able to pass both Chambers without objection,” the American Radio Relay League said in a statement this afternoon. “In order for it to move through the Senate, Commerce Committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson [D., Fla.] required the deletion of the Amateur Radio Parity Act. This bipartisan bill, championed in the House by Chairman Greg Walden, Representatives Adam Kinzinger [R., Ill.] and Joe Courtney [D., Conn.] and supported by Senators Rogers Wicker [R., Miss.] and Richard Blumenthal [D., Conn.], would undoubtedly enhance emergency communications efforts in Florida and throughout the US and Puerto Rico, and do so at no cost to taxpayers. It is our hope that Congress will support the taxpayer-free emergency communications provided by volunteer radio amateurs, particularly after the work that our membership provided during the recent hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands this past fall. We will continue to advocate for the passage of the Parity Act.”
Also omitted from the substitute bill were provisions taken from two bills that were recently approved by Congress: the Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act (S 96) and the Kari’s Law Act of 2017 (HR 582) (TR Daily, Feb. 9).
FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly praised the approval of the bill today.
“I vowed years ago that if the repack funds were insufficient, I would lead the charge for additional monies, as broadcasters were promised that the incentive auction would be truly voluntary. Today, we reach the next stage in the process, and I heartily endorse the Energy and Commerce Committee’s action to add funding for full power television and radio broadcasters in the Repack Airwaves Yielding Better Access for Users of Modern Services Act of 2018,” Mr. O’Rielly said.
“It is also great to see the Spectrum Auction Deposits Act of 2017 included in today’s package, which provides the technical fix necessary to get our spectrum auctions back on track. As someone who was an early advocate of establishing an auction timeline, this needs to become law so we can get auctions on the books and held this year, if not Q1 of 2019,” Mr. O’Rielly added. “Finally, I stand ready to work with any Member of Congress to enhance and improve the FCC process reforms included in today’s measure.”
Jonathan Spalter, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Telecom Association, said, “USTelecom is glad to see the House Energy & Commerce Committee move bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the FCC for the first time since 1990. The inclusion of process reforms and efficiency measures reflect a forward looking, 21st century approach to the oversight of our rapidly evolving communications industry.”
Tony Russo, vice president-federal legislative affairs for T-Mobile US, Inc., said, “T-Mobile applauds Chairman Greg Walden and the House Energy & Commerce Committee for today achieving a significant milestone towards the transition of 600 MHz spectrum by providing additional funds for the 600 MHz repack.”
Robert McDowell, chief public policy adviser for Mobile Future, welcomed approval of HR 4986, noting that it, among other things, “includes a legislative fix to ensure the FCC can conduct new spectrum auctions. This removes a critical hurdle the FCC identified, which prevents financial institutions from holding large sums from auction deposits put up by spectrum auction bidders. Making more of our airwaves available for mobile broadband is a key ingredient for American leadership in 5G, the next generation of wireless technology.”
America’s Public Television Stations (APTS) President and Chief Executive Officer Patrick Butler said, “America’s Public Television Stations are delighted that the House Energy and Commerce Committee has recommended additional funds today to ensure that broadcasters repacking their channels will have the resources they need to complete this work in a timely way, educate consumers about the transition, and minimize disruption for their viewers. … We look forward to working with both the House and Senate to ensure the necessary funding is quickly secured to help stations in the first phase of the repack meet their transition deadline, now less than 10 months away, and the unanimous vote of the Committee today bodes well for a successful resolution of this very troublesome issue.”
The LPTV Spectrum Right Coalition complained that the legislation would only make funding available to LPTV stations if money was left over from distributions to full-power stations. —Paul Kirby, [email protected]
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