FCC Chairman Ajit Pai today announced that he plans to circulate a draft report and order for consideration at the agency’s Aug. 2 meeting “that would result in more granular and more accurate broadband maps.”
Mr. Pai told members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee during an FCC oversight hearing that the more accurate mapping data would be gathered by “requiring broadband providers to report where they actually offer service, below the census-block level, and looking to incorporate public feedback into our mapping efforts. I hope my colleagues will join me in this effort to improve upon our maps and look forward to working with you on that effort.”
Later during the hearing, he indicated the FCC will rely on sources of data that include crowdsourcing.
“We appreciate that announcement,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), one of a number of panel members who complained that inaccurate broadband maps make it impossible for the FCC to pinpoint where funding and other resources should go to bridge the digital divide.
Sen. Wicker announced that he planned to introduce today the Broadband DATA Act with Sens. Gary Peters (D., Mich.), John Thune (R., S.D.), and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) to require the FCC to collect more granular data on where broadband is available and where it is not (see separate story).
Sen. Wicker said during opening remarks at today’s hearing that “a completely new approach” is needed to ensure that maps are accurate maps before FCC should move forward on funding.
Also during today’s hearing, Mr. Pai criticized the Commerce Department for its opposition to the protection limits adopted by the FCC before its auction of 24 gigahertz band spectrum.
Mr. Pai reiterated his defense of his decision to go ahead with the 24 GHz band auction despite complaints that operations in the spectrum could cause interference to weather forecasting and other operations in the adjacent frequencies.
“We believe that our protection limits are appropriate,” Mr. Pai told Sen. Thune. He said no “validated” study was produced showing that the FCC’s technical limits were inappropriate and could lead to interference to weather sensors operating in the adjacent 23 GHz band.
He said that the assumptions in a study presented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration caused that research to be “fundamentally flawed.”
He also told Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) that an “artificially high” protection limit globally would hurt the use of millimeter-wave band spectrum for 5G internationally.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) prodded Mr. Pai and his fellow Commissioners to elaborate on the situation. “I don’t want you to be diplomatic,” the senator said. “We need to get to the bottom of this.”
“Unfortunately, one department has been very active in trying to undermine the United States position in these international negotiations and make it more difficult for us to free up spectrum in 5G,” Mr. Pai complained.
“The Department of Commerce has been blocking our efforts at every single turn,” said Mr. Pai, adding that the situation has gotten worse since the recent sudden resignation of National Telecommunications and Information Administration head David Redl (TR Daily, May 9).
Mr. Pai suggested that a congressional resolution stressing that it is U.S. policy for 5G to be deployed as quickly as possible “would give us some momentum.”
“It’s not just about 24 GHz. It’s about every other band that we’re talking about in millimeter wave,” said Commissioner Mike O’Rielly. “They want to come back and retest and rechallenge decisions that we are making, and that’s very problematic. … I think this is about precedent-setting.”
Chairman Pai and Commissioners O’Rielly and Brendan Carr said they are comfortable with the technical limits adopted by the FCC.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel did not directly answer questions about whether she is comfortable with the limits, saying that she has not been in meetings that Mr. Pai has had with parties.
But she said that “the situation we have is embarrassing,” adding that it could undermine U.S. positions at the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference. “We’ve got to figure this stuff out before we hold an auction. Otherwise, the integrity of our future auction structures [is] at stake,” Ms. Rosenworcel added.
“I would agree that the integrity of our decision-making process is at issue here,” said Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks.
During her opening statement, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), ranking member of the committee, expressed concern about possible interference to weather forecasting operations.
“When scientists and weather experts from outside and inside the Trump administration warned that actions on spectrum could harm forecasting, their concerns were ignored. Peer-reviewed science research has concluded that without key vapor data that could vanish due to actions on where spectrum has been allocated, that this could impact our weather forecasting,” Ms. Cantwell added.
“And despite the correct forecasting — if you consider what Sandy impacted, hundreds of lives and $70 billion, getting that forecast wrong would have been deadly,” she said. “I want to thank Chairman Wicker for agreeing to hold a hearing on this topic in the near future, because I think it needs to be addressed in more detail. I also want to make sure that we are clear today: we are not going to allow this vital information to be jeopardized in the future.”
The Commerce Department did not respond to a request for comment on Mr. Pai’s criticism of the agency.
Senators and witnesses discussed a myriad of other issues at today’s hearing, including robocalls, the FCC’s restoring Internet freedom order, the proposed T-Mobile US, Inc.–Sprint Corp merger, the sale of mobile location data, the security of 5G networks, a proposed overall cap on Universal Service Fund programs, telemedicine, and other spectrum actions, including actions in the 3.7–4.2 GHz and 5.9 GHz bands.
Regarding robocalls, several senators pressed the FCC to require carriers to provide solutions to the problem free of charge to consumers.
Last week, the FCC adopted a declaratory ruling that voice service providers may use analytics to identify robocalls that are likely to be unwanted and to block them on a default basis, provided they inform consumers and offer them the ability to opt out (TR Daily, June 6). But the item did not require anti-robocall solutions to be offered for free to consumers, as Commissioners Rosenworcel and Starks urged they should be.
“My expectation is that it would be free,” Mr. Pai told Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) today. The senator asked why the Commission did not just mandate that. Mr. Pai said it can’t do so without a notice-and-comment period. But he noted that the FCC put a process in place to do that in the future. However, Mr. Starks said he believes the Commission could have imposed such a mandate now.
“My head will explode if I get a charge. I may just quit,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont). “We all think it should be free. Make it free. Give certainty.”
Sen. Blumenthal also pressed Mr. Pai on when the FCC would act in response to news reports about the sale of location data collected by wireless carriers.
“I have this feeling we’re going to look back on these hearings and say that the FCC, and maybe this committee, fiddled and mumbled while our privacy and security burned,” the senator said, adding that he was “appalled” that a year after the first disclosure of the sale of location information “that we still have no word — none — from the FCC on its supposed investigation of this practice. When are we going to hear something, Chairman Pai?”
“My understanding is the staff is wrapping up the investigation and will be coming to me with recommendations in the near future. I don’t have a specific date,” Mr. Pai replied.
There was disagreement at the hearing about whether the FCC’s RIF order was responsible for USTelecom figures released this week that indicated, among other things, that U.S. broadband providers invested $75 billion in broadband networks in 2018, up from $72 billion in 2017 and $69 billion in 2016 (TR Daily, June 10). Commissioners Pai and Carr cited the statistics at the hearing.
But Ms. Rosenworcel said that telecom companies have told Wall Street that FCC actions don’t impact telecom investment and capital deployment and she said that there have been indications that capital expenditures have decreased in the past year.
Sen. Cantwell complained about the adoption of the RIF order, saying that “since the repeal of net neutrality, some wireless and broadband companies already appear to be testing ways to undermine the free and open internet. Wireless carriers have been accused of potentially throttling subscribers to Netflix and YouTube, CenturyLink temporarily blocked access to the internet in Utah to force consumers to watch ads, Sprint allegedly interfered with competitive Skype services using wireless networks.”
Regarding the proposed T-Mobile–Sprint merger, senators noted that Mr. Pai and his Republican colleagues indicated support for the deal before any item was circulated at the Commission (TR Daily, May 20).
Mr. Pai said in response to a question from Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) that the FCC staff has completed its analysis and recommendations concerning the merger. Mr. O’Rielly told the senator that he tweeted that he was inclined to support the deal because a publication was working on a story on his position.
Sen. Tom Udall (D., N.M.) said he is “very skeptical” that the combined entity would serve rural areas with 5G. He noted that he and other senators had asked Mr. Pai to put out for comment additional commitments offered by T-Mobile and Sprint last month. Mr. Pai declined the request in a letter yesterday, Sen. Udall said.
Sen. Udall asked Ms. Rosenworcel for her view on the “curious” way the Republican Commissioners announced their support for the transaction.
“This is highly unusual,” she replied, noting that no staff analysis of the deal had been circulated. “It looks like some backroom dealing. This is really irregular.”
Mr. Starks also said he was concerned with the way the proceeding has played out and noted that the FCC solicited comment on divestitures in the Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc.–Tribune Media Co. proceeding.
Sen. Blumenthal noted a Fox Business report that said the White House has encouraged the Department of Justice to approve the deal even though DoJ staff has suggested blocking it, and asked Mr. Pai if he had been contacted by the White House concerning the transaction or if he was aware of other Commissioners that were. Mr. Pai said no. He also promised to inform the committee if he is contacted by the White House.
Sen. Cantwell expressed concern about the security of 5G networks. Mr. Starks stressed the need to find out the extent of the use of Chinese equipment, such as gear from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., and said that carriers are likely to need assistance in replacing it.
Sen. Wicker noted that he recently introduced with other senators the United States 5G Leadership Act of 2019, which would establish the Supply Chain Security Trust Fund grant program to help carriers remove Chinese equipment from their networks (TR Daily, May 22).
Senators also complained about the proposed overall cap on USF programs (TR Daily, May 31).
“We don’t need these four programs each competing against each other,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.).
In response to questions from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska) regarding the FCC’s Rural Health Care support mechanism, Mr. Pai said that an order on an application for review is on track to be circulated late this month or next month and that he expects to get an item from staff soon concerning the Rural Health Care rules.
Telemedicine was also discussed at today’s hearing.
Mr. Carr, the point person for telemedicine at the Commission, noted that last year (TR Daily, Aug. 2, 2018), the FCC “initiated a proceeding to provide up to $100 million for connected care pilots that benefit low-income patients, including those eligible for Medicaid and veterans. … I anticipate moving to the next stage of the proceeding this summer, and I look forward to working with my colleagues at the FCC, federal and state partners, members of the Committee, and all stakeholders as we stand up the Connected Care Pilot Program.”
On other spectrum issues, Mr. Pai did not provide a specific timeframe for action in the 3.7–4.2 GHz proceeding, saying only, “We look forward to moving forward as quickly as we can.”
The Chairman also defended his plan for the FCC to open a rulemaking to consider whether the agency should reallocate the 5.9 GHz band for unlicensed devices or leave it as is, which he has said he is “skeptical” of doing, or choose something in between (TR Daily, May 14).
“DSRC has not progressed as people would have anticipated,” Mr. Pai told Sen. Peters, referring to dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) technology. Sen. Peters submitted into the record a map showing areas where DSRC has been deployed.
Sen. Cantwell criticized Mr. Pai’s plan.
“We have also heard, at a time when motor vehicle accidents claim more than 37,000 lives in the United States each year, that the FCC is pushing to open up key spectrum that jeopardizes the promise of new technologies in this particular area that could prevent as many as 80 percent of these actions,” she said.
Mr. Schatz also asked Mr. Pai questions about the operations of the Commission.
He asked Mr. Pai whether he had told Commissioners before today’s hearing that he would announce the broadband mapping item he plans to circulate for the August meeting. Mr. Pai said he had not, but he said he has asked each Commissioner to be the point person for an issue.
“You just sprung an announcement on your fellow Commissioners,” Sen. Schatz said. “They have to be in the loop, so that you’re working together as a Commission.”
Mr. Schatz also noted that a company submitted false broadband deployment data to the FCC, which was discovered by an outside group.
“It demonstrates the weak foundation on which you’re doing your mapping,” he said. —Paul Kirby, [email protected]
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