Members of the House communications and technology subcommittee today reviewed progress in implementing the RAY BAUM’S Act, including the repacking of TV stations in the wake of the FCC’s incentive auction, broadband mapping, and network resiliency and restoration.
The RAY BAUM’S Act, which was included in omnibus appropriations legislation enacted in March (TR Daily, March 23), included provisions from a variety of telecom-related bills.
Among other things, Congress in the legislation appropriated an additional $1 billion for repacking for full-power TV stations as well as for low-power TV, TV translator, FM radio stations, and consumer education; included $7.5 million for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to update the national broadband map; included provisions from the Securing Access to Networks in Disasters (SANDy) Act (HR 588) to make it easier for entities to restore services after disasters; and included language from legislation that requires the FCC to conclude a proceeding on 911 call location.
At this afternoon’s hearing, Republicans and Democrats said the RAY BAUM’S Act is an example of how lawmakers can work together in a bipartisan fashion, which they said they hoped would continue in the next Congress. Democrats will be in control of the House beginning next month.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), chairman of the subcommittee who was leading her last House hearing in the wake of her election to the Senate last month, said she wants the TV band repacking to “stay on track.”
Rep. Mike Doyle (D., Pa.), ranking member of the subcommittee, criticized the FCC on several fronts.
“For instance, while I’m glad that we were able to come together and ensure that broadcasters would have the resources they need to complete the incentive auction repack, I’m disappointed that the FCC still has not started up the consumer education program that was authorized and funded by this legislation,” Mr. Doyle said of the $50 million included for that purpose.
He added that “consumers are in desperate need of education about how the repack impacts them.” Mr. Doyle added that although he understands “that broadcasters have an incentive to inform their viewers,” consumers need assistance. “These are problems viewers are facing now, and the FCC needs to get it into gear,” he said.
The congressman also noted that the RAY BAUM’S Act “also consolidated a number of reports at the FCC into the Consolidated Communications Marketplace Report, and the Commission is planning to vote on this report at their open meeting tomorrow. The draft report says that nearly 100% of our country is served by one or more LTE wireless providers, which is a joke. Madam Chairman, I’d like to add this draft report to the record, so that our colleagues can see what the FCC thinks about wireless coverage in their districts.”
Mr. Doyle added, “With data like this, it’s no surprise that the Commission put its Mobility Fund II auction on hold. The Commission needs better data in order to proceed with this auction. They can’t put the onus on rural bidders to verify or dispute another carrier’s claim of coverage in any given area.”
At the direction of Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC last week announced the launch of an investigation into whether “one or more major carriers” violated the agency’s rules by submitting incorrect coverage maps for use in the challenge process for the MF-II reverse auction (TR Daily, Dec. 7).
“So, while I’m pleased that the FCC has delayed this auction, I’m sorely disappointed that they took so long to do it. This auction will fund wireless rural broadband deployment for the next 10 years and we need to get it right,” Mr. Doyle added.
Mr. Doyle also noted that the RAY BAUM’S Act requires the FCC to produce a report on the feasibility of reallocating or sharing the 3.7-4.2 gigahertz C-band band with wireless carriers.
“The satellite providers have proposed a private market transaction that would sell off 200 megahertz of spectrum to wireless companies and consolidate satellite operations into the upper three hundred megahertz of the band,” he noted. “Finding creative solutions to meet our spectrum needs is crucial, and I think there’s merit to this plan. However, I’m very concerned about the specifics, or lack thereof, that has been proposed so far. This band is among those that has been identified as key to deploying our 5G service. Allowing a small group of foreign companies to hand-pick which wireless carriers get access to this critical spectrum raises incredible questions about competition, rural deployment, transparency, and the public interest. Our nation cannot afford to have the FCC sit on the sidelines while our nation’s 5G future is being decided.”
Curtis LeGeyt, executive vice president-government relations for the National Association of Broadcasters, noted that the FCC granted waivers to 11 broadcasters that couldn’t complete repacking in Phase 1 due to circumstances outside of their control, including a shortage of tower crews and weather.
“This repack is only going to get more complex as we go forward,” he said, adding that the industry does not have an assurance from the FCC about how it will approach future waiver requests.
Broadcasters are committed to completing the repack as soon as possible, Mr. LeGeyt said, adding, “We’ve got every incentive to put this repack behind us.” But he also said that there are “clear warning signs” from Phase 1.
“There’s only so much you can do when you don’t have tower crews” and the weather is difficult, said Rep. Bill Johnson (R, Ohio).
Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.), chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, said that individual waivers to TV stations “may make some sense,” but he noted that there will be “a lot of pressure to get this done, as you know.”
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R., Fla.) said “while we should try to stick” to the 39-month transition timeline, communications needed for public safety should not be compromised.
Bohdan Zachary, general manager of Milwaukee PBS, said the FCC should allocate at least some of the $50 million on consumer education to public television, adding that the money should be distributed soon so it can be useful.
“Without education, there are going to be a lot of viewers who are going to throw their hands up and not know what to do,” he said.
Tim Donovan, senior vice president-legislative affairs for the Competitive Carriers Association, said the additional $1 billion for repacking allocated by Congress is helpful. He also said that “setting expectations and promoting accountability” are important, adding that keeping to the 39-month transition timeline is crucial, even if individual waivers are needed.
Several lawmakers besides Mr. Doyle complained about inadequate broadband mapping information, a concern that Mr. Donovan echoed. He repeatedly stressed that the data provided needs to be standardized.
As for the C-band, Mr. Donovan told Mr. Doyle that that FCC’s record in its proceeding has not shown that a private sale of spectrum would provide the same protections as an FCC auction, which he said is “a proven process.” CCA does not have “faith that that’s going to be the right solution,” he added.
Mr. Donovan also praised the AIRWAVES Act (HR 4953), which Mr. Doyle and Rep. Leonard Lance (R., N.J.), who was defeated in last month’s election, cosponsored. The bill would reserve 10% of auction proceeds for wireless infrastructure spending in unserved and underserved rural areas. Mr. Doyle said he will “be looking for a partner” for his bill when he reintroduces it in the new Congress.
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D., Calif.) said she hopes in the next Congress builds on Dig Once provisions included in the RAY BAUM’S Act. She also highlighted the 911 call location provisions.
Jeff Cohen, chief counsel and director-government relations for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, put in a pitch for congressional funding for next-generation 911 (NG-911) deployment. He praised the RAY BAUM’S Act because of its focus on locating 911 callers and dispatchable location.
In response to questions from Rep. Yvette Clarke (D., N.Y.), who said the FCC should make mandatory the voluntary Wireless Resiliency Cooperative Framework, Mr. Cohen said that APCO would like to see provisions codified, such as those concerning a contact database and outage data that provides “situational awareness” to public safety. In addition, he said, the framework should be extended to other providers.
Rep. Raul Ruiz (D., Calif.) noted that provisions from his Tribal Digital Access Act of 2017 (HR 1581) were included in the RAY BAUM’S Act. It requires the FCC to complete by March a study of broadband services on tribal lands.
He said that he has not spoken to anyone at the FCC on the methodology the agency is using for the study and that he doesn’t know of any tribes that have been contacted. He also said that the FCC has not responded to a letter that he and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.), ranking member of the full committee, sent the agency more than a month ago on the study and a Government Accountability Office report on tribal broadband issues.
“That is simply unacceptable,” the congressman said. “It is becoming abundantly clear that this FCC does not respect the treaty and trust responsibilities of the federal government to federally recognized tribes, nor do they view the accurate accounting of broadband service on tribal lands as a priority at all.”
He noted that Democrats will be in the majority soon and said he will keep pressing the FCC to “address this issue in the next Congress.” —Paul Kirby, [email protected]
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