Members of the House communications and technology subcommittee today complained to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and his colleagues about robocalls, inaccurate broadband maps, the sale of location data to third parties, universal service proposals, spectrum issues, and the FCC’s response to hurricanes that battered Puerto Rico, among other things, with Democrats particularly delivering harsh rebukes of Mr. Pai.
Today’s FCC often-contentious oversight hearing was the first of the Commission by the subcommittee since Democrats took control of the House this year.
“It’s been nine months since this subcommittee’s last oversight hearing, and while a lot has happened in that time, a lot of the issues that were a concern then remain unresolved today. At our last oversight hearing, I expressed concerns about revelations that mobile carriers were selling location data, the Mobility Fund II proceeding, competition policy, and US spectrum policy,” subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D., Pa.) said in his opening statement.
“At that time, I expressed concerns to the Commission about reports that mobile wireless carriers were sharing individuals’ real time location data with third parties. Chairman Pai, you told us that you were ‘investigating’ this issue. Today, we still don’t have assurances that these practices have stopped. And since we first heard about this problem, new even more troubling revelations have emerged. Namely, that this data was sold to bounty hunters and God knows who else,” Mr. Doyle added. “Americans don’t know who had access to this data, who sold the data, or whether anyone is going to be held accountable, because we have heard nothing about it yet from the FCC. At this juncture neither Congress nor the American people understand the scope of what happened, and no one has been held accountable for this reckless and illegal practice. The situation as it stands is unacceptable, as has been the lack communication to this Committee and the American people about this situation. We need answers.”
Regarding the MF-II proceeding, Mr. Doyle said he is “happy the Commission has acknowledged that the process and the data in this proceeding were deeply flawed. However, rural communities around the country remain unserved and these funds remain unobligated. All we have heard from the Commission is that you are ‘investigating’ this issue too. It is my understanding that the Commission has not requested new coverage data from carriers to correct its flawed maps. I don’t know why you’ve waited so long to act to fix this problem, and today we sit here without a resolution in sight.”
He also called robocalls a problem that “is out of control. Americans this year will receive 12 billion more robocalls then they received last year. And since the Trump Administration took office Americans have gone from receiving 2 billion calls a month to 5 billion. … We are past the point of Band-Aids. We need real solutions to address this problem, and real protections for the American people.”
Regarding the 3.7-4.2 GHz C-band, Mr. Doyle said he has “seen this band valued as high as $70 billion. I think making a part of this band available for 5G service is important for meeting the nation’s mid-band spectrum needs. But given that much of the country has no Gs, shouldn’t we try to use the value of this band to fund the deployment of broadband to unserved areas as well as to help with adoption and affordability? Simply put, it seems irresponsible and unconscionable to give that money to four foreign satellite companies when the broadband infrastructure needs of our nation are so great.”
During the questioning period, Mr. Doyle asked several questions about the FCC investigation into wireless carriers’ sale of location data to third parties, including whether the carriers’ practices have stopped and whether the FCC has tolling agreements with carriers to ensure the statute of limitations does not run out.
“I cannot comment on a pending law enforcement investigation,” Mr. Pai said repeatedly. But he added, “We are mindful of the relevant statute of limitations.” He also said later in the hearing that the investigation is an FCC priority.
“I find your answers to these questions, given the time that has elapsed and the seriousness of this issue, as wholly insufficient,” Mr. Doyle replied. “This committee expects you to do more than just sit on your hands.”
Mr. Doyle also told Mr. Pai that he was concerned that the FCC would use inaccurate Form 477 data and special access data collected in 2015 when considering a U.S. Telecom Association forbearance petition. Mr. Pai said that the FCC wants to make sure it has all the data included in the proceeding because USTelecom relied on the 2015 data for its petition.
Regarding the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “I think that we need to consult with Congress to identify what to do with the C-band next.” She said the FCC should “find a neutral entity” to assess “just how much this spectrum is worth.” She suggested that auction proceeds could be used to narrow the “homework gap” and deliver broadband services to rural areas.
Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Mr. Starks said he agreed. He said it’s important to maximize the amount of spectrum that can be repurposed without providing “a private windfall” to parties.
Mr. Pai said he is concerned about delaying the proceeding to wait for Congress to pass legislation.
Rep. Doris Matsui (D., Calif.) said she plans to introduce legislation “to propose a compromise, consensus-based approach, to rapidly reallocate” the 3.7-4.2 GHz band “in a manner that addresses many of the concerns raised on the Commission’s record.” She thanked wireless, cable, and rural providers for their expected support of the bill. A consensus “is the only way to avoid this proceeding being slowed down or tied up in court,” Ms. Matsui added.
Her office did not respond to requests today for additional information on the measure.
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D., Calif.) cited broadband mapping, robocalls, proposed changes to the Lifeline program, and the FCC’s location data probe in her complaints with the Commission.
“I really think you have to up your game so that next time you come here, you have a checklist of what you’ve accomplished, not what you keep talking about,” Ms. Eshoo told Mr. Pai.
“The same issue of maps keeps coming up,” she said. “You really have to put the pedal to the metal. If this is a top priority, you can get it done. … This has gone on for too long.”
She also mocked the FCC’s announcement this week that it plans to hold a robocall summit in July (TR Daily, May 13). “People are being ripped off. They’re not only being harassed,” she said, adding that the FCC should establish a division to focus on robocalls – echoing a recommendation of Commissioner Rosenworcel.
Ms. Eshoo also asked “how anyone with a conscious” can make changes to the Lifeline program, saying they will hurt poor people.
As for the sale of location data, Ms. Eshoo said that “carriers promised to stop the practice, but they made the same promises a year ago.”
“This is taking so long that you’re running the clock on this darn thing,” added Ms. Eshoo.
She complained that Mr. Pai was withholding information on the FCC’s investigation from the Democratic Commissioners.
“They’re commissioners, full commissioners,” the congresswoman said. “Just because they’re Democrats, you shouldn’t withhold the information from them.”
Mr. Pai replied that he hasn’t withheld any information from the Democratic Commissioners, saying, “Our enforcement bureau staff regularly briefs Commissioners on a variety of issues, including this one.”
Ms. Rosenworcel has said she asked the Enforcement Bureau for letters of inquiry related to the investigation but has not gotten them (TR Daily, Jan. 30). Mr. Starks’ office said today that he has asked for the investigative records, LOIs, LOI responses, any subpoenas, and follow-up LOIs.
Mr. Pai said that he had asked Mr. Starks, a former Enforcement Bureau staffer, to lead the probe.
Mr. Starks confirmed this to the committee, saying he then asked for a briefing from the bureau on the investigation, which had been open for about eight months.
“What I heard at that briefing did not give me confidence that that case was moving along quickly enough,” Mr. Starks added, saying it’s imperative that the Commission bring its work to a close.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.), chairman of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, complained in his opening statement that “over the last two years, this FCC has too often turned its back on the public – putting the big corporate interests first. This FCC has heartlessly and needlessly proposed drastic cuts to the Lifeline program. … It has repeatedly deferred to companies on voluntary measures to correct major consumer problems, like robocalls or widespread communications failures after disasters like Hurricanes Maria and Michael. The FCC has taken more than a year to investigate the widespread disclosure of real-time location data by wireless carriers without taking any public action to require the carriers to stop sharing this data.”
During the questioning period, Mr. Pallone asked Mr. Pai if he would commit to issuing an order by the end of this year requiring carriers to implement call-authentication technology to thwart robocalls. Mr. Pai noted that he has warned carriers that the FCC will act if they don’t take such action by the end of this year so he said he can’t commit to getting an order approved in that timeframe.
Rep. Pallone also asked Mr. Pai if he would commit implementing an “enforceable requirement” as an update to the voluntary Wireless Resiliency Cooperative Framework.
Mr. Pai said the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau is currently involved in a proceeding on the framework so he can’t answer yes or no right now. But he said he would “consider” a binding commitment.
“That’s not much of a commitment, Mr. Chairman,” Mr. Pallone replied.
The congressman also asked Mr. Pai why the agency urged carriers to waive fees and charges after Hurricane Michael but not after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico.
Mr. Pai noted that he visited Puerto Rico twice and advanced funding to help restore communications networks there.
Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.) complained about the Chairman’s announcement of his plan to create a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to inject $20.4 billion into broadband networks in rural areas over the next decade to extend broadband services to up to four million homes and small businesses (TR Daily, April 12).
The new fund seems to be “a rebranding” of the Connect America Fund, Rep. Welch suggested, noting that Mr. Pai has said monies repurposed from the CAF, whose term of support ends next year with a phase-out in 2021, would be used for the RDOF.
“This is more than just a rebranding,” Mr. Pai replied. “It’s a rethink about how that money is allocated and distributed.”
He said he would like the new fund to use a reverse auction, noting the FCC’s successful CAF-II auction. He also said he wants funds to be available to rural communities that don’t have the FCC’s 25 megabits per second downstream/3 Mbps upstream (25/3) standard. And he said it would have strict accountability measures.
“This was presented to the public as a big deal,” Mr. Welch said. “But it’s not new money.” He also said that serving four million homes with the new fund would still leave 21 million without broadband service.
On broadband mapping, Mr. Pai that FCC officials “recognize the shortcomings in the maps.”
“They’re not shortcomings. They’re fiction,” Rep. Welch responded.
Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.), ranking member of the full committee, was equally direct when discussing the accuracy of broadband maps.
“There is no disagreement. The maps that are used stink,” Mr. Walden said.
Regarding the sale of location data, he said in some cases data aggregators sold data without the permission of consumers or carriers, and he said many carriers have terminated their agreements with third parties. He also pointed to the potential consumer harm of location data that is collected by major tech companies, which he said “are constantly tracking users” more precisely than wireless carriers.
Mr. Walden asked Mr. Pai if the FCC has jurisdiction over the data collection of those tech companies. Mr. Pai said it did not.
Mr. Walden also announced the release of a discussion draft of the Secure T-Band Allocation and No Diversion Act of 2019, which would delay by three years, until 2024, the reallocation of T-band spectrum, which is used by public safety agencies and companies, except in states and localities that divert 911 funds for other purposes or fail to respond to the FCC for its annual 911 fee diversion report.
“I’m really intrigued by this,” Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, who has been active on 911 fee diversion issues, said of Mr. Walden’s discussion draft.
“I applaud ranking member Walden for his recognition that 2021 is not a realistic date to begin an auction of the T-Band which is mission critical for public safety voice communications,” public safety official told TR Daily. “Having said this, I am not sure that delaying another three years the beginning of the auction will really change anything. Public safety believes that an auction will never bring in the revenue needed to move Public Safety off the T-Band. Plus it will take many years to move Public Safety to another spectrum even if spectrum can be found in certain of the cities to move to. The reality is that Public Safety will cease to use the T band when it is clear that mission critical voice communications can be done in another manner.”
The bill would also require the FCC to complete a report on the use of the 4.9 GHz band, which is also used by public safety entities but which FCC Commissioners and some others feel has been underutilized. Once the Commission completes that review, it would be permitted to modify 4.9 GHz band licenses.
Rep. Dave Loebsack (D., Iowa) expressed concern about an FCC proposal to impose an E-Rate cap.
Mr. Pai said the FCC has asked if all of the universal service programs have a cap, should there be an overall cap.
“That’s like the Universal Service ‘Hunger Games,’” said Ms. Rosenworcel. “I don’t think we need it.”
In response to questions from Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.), Mr. Pai defended his decision to move forward with the 24 GHz band auction despite concerns from the Commerce Department, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and members of Congress about interference to weather forecasting operations in adjacent spectrum.
Mr. Pai said the FCC has not received “a validated study” showing interference. “This is an engineering problem. This is not a policy or political problem,” he said. “What we don’t want to see is sort of the hyperbolic commentary that is not based on technical studies but is more a political shot at the agency – at the entire U.S. government at this point – which is designed … to score points up here on the Hill.”
Mr. Pai was also asked today about a draft 2019 report on broadband deployment that was revised after a review in light of the discovery that some provider-submitted data “drastically overstated deployment data to the FCC” (TR Daily, May 1). Mr. Pai said he directed staff to look into the issue and make corrections and “scrub all of the data” so it issued revamped draft report.
Also at today’s hearing, Mr. Pai said he did not have an announcement on when the FCC planned to act in its educational broadband service (EBS) proceeding, but wants to make sure the spectrum is “wisely utilized.” He also cited a Microsoft Corp. petition asking the agency to take further actions regarding TV white spaces spectrum.
In his prepared testimony, Mr. Pai cited actions that the FCC has taken on the robocall front, and he noted today’s circulation of a draft declaratory ruling that would allow carriers to block robocalls by default (see separate story). Among other things, he also noted progress the FCC has made in 5G deployment with its FAST Plan and its recent denial of a section 214 authorization to China Mobile (USA), Inc., on national security grounds (TR Daily, May 9).
As to the FCC’s Form 477 proceeding, Mr. Pai said in response to a question during the hearing that the FCC is working with stakeholders and he plans to get an update from staff soon.
Commissioner Brendan Carr noted efforts the FCC has taken to streamline the deployment of small cells needed for 5G, and he noted a telemedicine pilot program. He also stressed the importance of training telecom industry workers.
Ms. Rosenworcel said the FCC has done too little to address broadband problems, and short-changed consumers while helping industry. She also called for FCC action on mid-band spectrum, robocalls, and broadband maps. She also complained that the Commission has been “totally silent” on location data access.
Mr. Starks stressed the importance of addressing the digital divide, preserving the Lifeline program, improving broadband maps, and addressing the location tracking situation.
Mr. O’Rielly asked for congressional help to end 911 fee diversions. “I believe new legislation is needed, in addition to that already introduced on the topic, and that it will take a more forceful approach to end diversion once and for all,” he said. —Paul Kirby, [email protected]
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