Members of the House communications and technology subcommittee today bombarded FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the other Commissioners with questions about the inaccuracy of the agency’s broadband data, delays in completing an investigation into wireless carriers’ sharing of geolocation information with third parties, and Chairman Pai’s announcement yesterday of a proposal for a new 5G Fund.
However, they also offered to work toward legislation to enable use of spectrum auction revenues to fund broadband deployment or next-generation 911 (NG-911) services.
In his opening statement, subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D., Pa.) joked that the Commissioners must have been “missing” the lawmakers, as it has been seven months since the panel’s last FCC oversight hearing (TR Daily, June 12), but he quickly became more serious, noting that he had asking about the agency’s investigation into carriers’ sharing real-time location information.
Rep. Doyle said that at the hearing earlier this year, he had asked about the investigation, and “you couldn’t tell us whether this practice had stopped” or “whether impacted individuals had been notified.”
Rep. Doyle said that yesterday he and full Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.) received a response from Chairman Pai to a letter they sent last month about the investigation, “saying that he now expects an answer from the Enforcement Bureau by the end of January! And the Chairman says he will share those results with us as soon as practicable. It would be interesting to learn when that will be, Mr. Chairman.”
Chairman Doyle also raised concerns about Chairman Pai’s announcement yesterday of a proposal to replace the Mobility Fund Phase II program, which had been delayed by inaccurate data on 4G LTE coverage submitted by carriers, with a new 5G Fund (TR Daily, Dec. 4). “Stamping the new plan ‘5G’ doesn’t change the fact that communities where these funds are desperately needed have been waiting years, and will have to wait even longer because of a bungled process. And to add insult to injury, you aren’t even taking action against the carriers that submitted the faulty or fraudulent data in the first place. What’s the incentive in the future to provide accurate data if they know they’re going to get a pass?”
He added, “Mr. Chairman, I would remind you that you are charged with protecting the American people, not the telecom industry.”
Chairman Doyle did, however, welcome some of Chairman Pai’s recent actions, including calling for a repeal of the statutory mandate to reallocate and auction public safety T-band spectrum (TR Daily, Dec. 2) and announcing that he plans to pursue an FCC-run auction of 280 megahertz of spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 gigahertz band rather than the private sale pushed by the C-Band Alliance (CBA) (TR Daily, Nov. 18).
Rep. Doyle noted that with subcommittee Vice Chair Doris Matsui (D., Calif.) and subcommittee members Bill Johnson (R., Ohio) and Greg Gianforte (R., Mont.), he has introduced the Clearing Broad Airwaves for New Deployment (C-BAND) Act (HR 4855), which would require the FCC to hold an auction of the C-band to license 200 to 300 megahertz of the spectrum, while protecting incumbent users of the frequencies (TR Daily, Oct. 24).
Saying that there are “questions” about the FCC’s legal authority that could delay the auction through legal challenges, he said, “I believe Congress must move to pass legislation authorizing an auction in this band and resolve the Commission’s authority, to ensure a fair and transparent auction, and capture auction revenue so that it may be used to pay for the deployment of rural broadband, next-generation 911, and closing the digital divide. We all know that if we want to address these challenges, the federal government needs to provide the funding for it.”
Subcommittee ranking minority member Bob Latta (R., Ohio) said that he is glad the FCC is looking at the 6 GHz band for more unlicensed spectrum and “pleased that this committee reported favorably the Broadband DATA Act. But maps are only the beginning of … closing the digital divide,” he added. He also said it is “important to look for opportunities” to spread 5G deployment across the country.
Committee Chairman Pallone said, “Time and time again, this Commission has ignored the voice of the people and has taken a different path laid out by billion-dollar companies.” He cited, among other things, the FCC’s decision under Chairman Pai to eliminate net neutrality rules adopted under a Democratic-controlled Commission, as well as an action struck down by the courts to eliminate “vital protections that help safeguard important religious and cultural tribal sites” in an effort to expedite 5G deployment.
“Beyond that, this Commission has stalled when it comes to holding those mega corporations accountable for violating the slim safeguards that remain. We are, for example, still waiting for a conclusion of the FCC’s investigation into the widespread disclosure of real-time location data by wireless carriers. That investigation started over a year ago. This is unacceptable. Effective deterrence requires swift and decisive action – the FCC has demonstrated neither,” Chairman Pallone said.
He also criticized the FCC’s proposal last May, over the dissents of Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, to place an overall cap on the agency’s Universal Service Fund programs (TR Daily, May 31), and the agency’s inaction on improving the voluntary Wireless Resiliency Cooperative Framework to address disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires.
Finally, he said that “the on-going Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation into the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System is producing disturbing results. I can’t speak more specifically to its findings because the report is currently marked for limited or official use. But I ask Chairman Pai to dedicate the resources needed to quickly address the issues GAO has found.”
Full committee ranking member Greg Walden (R., Ore.) expressed concern about Chairman Pai’s announcement yesterday of the $9 billion 5G Fund, with $1 billion dedicated to deployments that will benefit precision agriculture deployments. He said it was unclear where the funding would come from and how the lack of adequate deployment data would be addressed.
“We take our job seriously. I know you know that. You take yours seriously but we expect to have a little more notice, a little more communication on some of these big announcements. So, I think that would be helpful and probably alleviate some of the questions that will come today,” Rep. Walden said.
Regarding the proposed C-band auction, Rep. Walden said, “As the law stands now, any proceeds from an FCC auction would go to the Treasury for deficit reduction, rather than going toward bipartisan priorities like facilitating the nationwide transition to Next-Generation 9-1-1. I think that it is important to legislate and look to my colleagues on the other side to work with us on this issue in the coming weeks. As we have these discussions, we must work with current licensees, potential bidders, and others so that this auction moves quickly, and we preserve U.S. wireless leadership.”
Rep. Walden also called for an end to states’ diversion of 911 fee revenues for other purposes.
Finally, he said, “At the last FCC oversight hearing, and other times over the last several years, I have floated proposals as to how to delay or repeal the T-Band auction process and welcomed thoughts on how to reconcile these related issues. I have not been taken up on that offer, so I must say that I find it interesting that just this week Chairman Pai called on Congress to repeal the T-Band auction mandate, which was not coordinated nor discussed with me or my staff, despite our efforts to find a solution. So, with the deadline fast approaching, I would like to take this opportunity to again repeat my call to affected parties to work with us and my colleagues on finding a consensus solution on this issue.”
In his testimony, Chairman Pai highlighted his proposal to establish “988” as the dialing code for national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline, which is scheduled for a vote at the agency’s Dec. 12 meeting (see separate story).
“Of course, an increase in calls will mean increased demand for crisis centers, which will require increased resources. That’s why it’s so important that this effort has the support of members of Congress from both parties, representatives from the relevant federal agencies, and nonprofit organizations that provide counseling services,” he added.
He also highlighted another item on next week’s meeting agenda, proposing to make the lower 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band available for unlicensed use and to allocate the upper 20 MHz for cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) technology (TR Daily, Nov. 21).
In his testimony, Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, who attended part of the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) in Egypt, which ended last month (TR Daily, Nov. 22), reiterated his doubts about the value of the international conference, which he said is used by some countries, such as Russia, for political purposes.
He emphasized that “for the U.S. to lead in 5G, we must avoid any delay in finalizing 5G spectrum allocations, especially mid-band [spectrum].”
Commissioner O’Rielly asked for the subcommittee’s help to end 911 fee diversion and suggested “tying the T-band [allocation] to ending 911 fee diversion as [Rep.] Walden recently suggested.”
Commissioner Brendan Carr highlighted his interest in encouraging community colleges to provide training for tower-climbing jobs, as well as his efforts on the agency’s telehealth Connected Care Pilot Program. “I’d like to move on an order in that [latter] proceeding in 2020 and I look forward to working with stakeholders,” he said.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel suggested that C-band auction revenues could be used to close the “homework gap” faced by students who do not have home broadband service.
As for the broadband data inaccuracies faced by the agency, she said, “We need maps before money and data before deployment.”
Commissioner Starks also called for “fixed maps” to use in addressing rural broadband deployment. “We can’t wake up 10 years from now with another $20 billion spent and we still don’t have a clear idea” where broadband is or isn’t available, he said.
He proposed tying Universal Service Fund high-cost awards in reverse auctions to commitments to provide low-price broadband Internet access. “We must advance a more affordable way for our poorest rural Americans to connect to the internet. Quite simply, the FCC should require USF auction winners to offer an affordable broadband service option,” he said. He pointed out that “a number of ISPs, including Comcast, Cox, AT&T and Spectrum [Charter], among others, provide low-cost internet offerings around $15 or less to families participating in federal school lunch and other programs — a good start for us to examine what an affordable offering may look like.”
Commissioner Starks also raised concerns about network security, especially in light of the 2020 national elections during which results routed over unsecured networks could be hacked.
During the question portion of the hearing, Chairman Doyle obtained agreement from all five Commissioners that congressional action is needed for the FCC to use auction revenues to subsidize broadband deployment and support other policy goals, rather than turn the money over to the U.S. Treasury.
All five Commissioners also agreed with Rep. Doyle that the agency’s broadband data is “significantly lacking” and “needs to be redone.”
Rep. Doyle asked when Chairman Pai will be able to provide lawmakers with information on the agency’s probe into the sharing of location data.
“Staff has said it can wrap up that part of the investigation by the end of January,” Mr. Pai said.
Commissioner Rosenworcel said that “the Chairman’s office has refused to provide us with information on letters of inquiry” sent to providers.
Rep. Latta asked about the pending proposal scheduled for an FCC vote next week on splitting the 5.9 GHz band among unlicensed uses and auto safety applications (TR Daily, Nov. 21). He asked whether that would still enable “safety messages and critical life-saving applications.”
Chairman Pai said, “My approach would deliver the most significant life-saving [results] … in decades [because] currently CV2X can’t go forward; we’re stuck with DSRC,” or dedicated short-range communications technology.
Rep. Latta asked, “Have you talked to the Department of Transportation?”
“Extensively,” Chairman Pai said. He added that a “spectral separation” approach is better than having unlicensed and auto safety operations share the spectrum as proposed by a previous FCC, because spectral separation doesn’t require “extensive testing” as the shared-spectrum approach does.
Rep. Walden asked how the FCC would ensure that support from the 5G Fund Is “distributed to appropriate places since you don’t have accurate maps?”
Chairman Pai said that the industry is still “in the early stages of 5G deployment,” so the MF-II problem of 4G LTE data accuracy “doesn’t ‘map’ to that [5G Fund] proceeding.”
Rep. Walden remarked that states’ role in assessing 911 fees on mailed telecom service bills, when the fee revenues are not used for 911 service, is “postal fraud.”
Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D., Ariz.) said he has “heard concern from tribes that the FCC’s outreach efforts were insufficient to educate them about auction process.”
Chairman Pai promised that the FCC will work and is working on its outreach to tribal governments.
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D., Calif.) asked Chairman Pai if he could send her the letters of inquiry in the investigation into sharing location information.
“I would have to consult with Enforcement Bureau career staff,” Chairman Pai said, adding, “I will see what we can do.”
“I’m going to move on because that’s basically a no,” Rep. Eshoo said.
Rep. Eshoo also asked about cellular outages during California wildfires.
“This is part of the reason why I’ve stressed the need for power companies to share information with telecom companies,” Chairman Pai said.
“If you asked for information and they didn’t give it to you, it’s your responsibility to follow up,” Rep. Eshoo said. “There needs to be a plan on this. This is about life and death,” she added.
Rep. Jerry McNerney (D., Calif.) asked Chairman Pai for a commitment to conduct a field hearing in California about cell tower outages due to power outages during wildfires. Chairman Pai said he would be happy to discuss it. The FCC did not clarify, in response to a TR Daily query, whether the Chairman’s agreement to Rep. McNerney’s request for a commitment to “do so” within six months reflected an understanding that the commitment was to discuss the issue or to hold a field hearing.
Rep. Matsui noted that she sent a letter to Chairman Pai urging him to consider wildfire issues in the Wireless Resiliency Cooperative Framework. Mr. Pai said that the framework includes all disasters.
“There hasn’t been particular emphasis on it,” Rep. Matsui remarked.
When she brought up the issue of power companies, Chairman Pai said, “We don’t have jurisdiction over power companies. We can’t compel them to do anything.”
“We believe there is a loud voice the FCC can provide,” Rep. Matsui said.
Rep. Johnson asked whether there is anything Congress can do to help with the public auction of C-band spectrum.
“Allow the FCC to allocate a portion of [auction revenues] for rural broadband deployment,” Chairman Pai responded.
“We’ll certainly be looking at that,” Rep. Johnson said.
Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.) also asked what Congress can do to help with the C-band auction.
Ms. Rosenworcel said that it could help make the FCC’s “authority to incentivize satellite providers” clearer and to authorize allocation of auction proceeds to close the digital divide.
Mr. Pai said he would “reiterate my call from 2018 for Congress to create a ‘rural dividend’” from auction revenues.
Rep. Susan Brooks (R., Ind.) asked whether Chairman Pai has “thought about licensing some of the 6 GHz band.”
Mr. Pai said, “We’re continuing to take meetings with groups [that favor licensing].” He added that he would “proceed with an open mind.”
Chairman Pallone said he was concerned about the FCC “taking actions like the $9 billion [5G] Fund without giving us notice.”
He also said that his concerns about the resiliency of communications and networks in the wake of disasters “have fallen on deaf ears” and that it is now “time for [Congress] to step in.”
Ms. Rosenworcel agreed about the need to update the Wireless Resiliency Cooperative Framework. “The FCC should stop asking questions and do something about it,” she said.
Chairman Pallone asked her to outline her “process concerns” regarding the FCC’s review of the proposed merger of T-Mobile US, Inc., and Sprint Corp.
“You should ask for a copy of the original [staff] draft” of the order addressing the merger, she said, suggesting that there were major changes between the draft and what was adopted and released.
Rep. Gianforte suggested “syncing up” the FCC’s definition of rural with the definition in the farm bill.
Rep. Bill Flores (R., Texas) said that he plans to introduce legislation to mandate the FCC’s aspirational 180-day shot clock in merger reviews.
Rep. Yvette Clarke (D., N.Y.) raised concerns about the fact that the 2020 census will be conducted online.
Ms. Rosenworcel responded that the census is “not going to be able to count people who are on the wrong side of the digital divide, and it’s going to have constitutional consequences.”
After the hearing, Christina Mason, vice president–government affairs at the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, said in a statement, “We appreciate the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, as well as the FCC, for focusing on getting more spectrum out for commercial use. The work being done to identify and unleash new spectrum — such as in the EBS, CBRS, C-band, 5.9 GHz and 6 GHz bands — for use by a greater array of innovators is welcome and much needed, especially for rural America. Our members, who serve six million, mostly rural Americans with fixed wireless broadband, need more spectrum so they can innovate, grow and meet the demands of consumers in areas that have been left behind in the digital desert. Providing a meaningful opportunity to obtain that spectrum, employing proven technology to share that spectrum, and ensuring that areas which lack broadband are accurately mapped so taxpayer-supported, broadband buildouts go to places that truly need them is important work that must move forward with all due haste.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
MainStory: FederalNews Congress FCC SpectrumAllocation WirelessDeployment BroadbandDeployment
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