TR Daily Panel Working toward Bipartisan Infrastructure Bills
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Friday, March 9, 2018

Panel Working toward Bipartisan Infrastructure Bills

The House communications and technology subcommittee will have a hearing to examine the net neutrality issue of paid prioritization and is also “hard at work right now going through the 25 bills” addressing broadband infrastructure that were the subject of a recent legislative hearing (TR Daily, Jan. 30) “and finding those that could be bipartisan in nature and actually combining some bills, so that we will end up with bipartisan bills,” subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) said during an interview for C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” set to air this weekend.

“I have to tell you I was so pleased with the participation from both sides of the dais on bringing forward how we remove road blocks to getting broadband out there,” Chairman Blackburn said.

Asked about specific issues she sees making their way into the combined bills, she said, “You’re going to see simplification, where if you’re getting a permit at one level of government — local, state, or federal — then you’re meeting the qualification and the needs for another one.”

Asked about how much federal infrastructure spending might be directed specifically to broadband, Rep. Blackburn noted that the Trump administration proposal leaves a great deal of discretion to the states — $50 billion of the proposed $200 billion would be go to states based on a formula that takes into account how much of the state is rural — and that local communities that lack broadband are likely to urge governors to make broadband a priority.

“Until they get jobs growth, or reposition a call center, and until they are keeping those hospitals open, then that surface infrastructure is going to be a secondary issue. So you’re going to see many localities make that choice as to how they want to spend those dollars. I think that’s a wise move,” she said.

She also said, “I think the important thing to note is that there is money that we’re going to have from the Universal Service Fund. Those are fees that are in there, already paid. There is also money that will come from the incentive auction … that can be used” for broadband support.

Regarding the ongoing debate over net neutrality, Rep. Blackburn said, “[T]o address the issue, there is the Open Internet Preservation Act, which is legislation I filed, which puts in statute no-block, no-throttle, and takes those two issues which are of primary concern and addresses them, moves them off the table, if you will. And that should be something we can have bipartisan agreement on.

“Now, when it comes to the issue of paid prioritization, as I have talked to those that are working in different fields that are utilizing artificial intelligence, or healthcare technologies, remote-monitoring processes in manufacturing, and autonomous vehicles, many times they will say, ‘Let’s not ban paid prioritization, because what you may need is to utilize some of those services as you innovate those next-generation utilizations, things that are just coming into being right now.’ But we needed to have a more thoughtful and thorough discussion and look at the paid prioritization issue. I think that it merits a more thorough discussion, and we’re going to have a hearing that will address this.”

As for efforts by states to pass their own net neutrality legislation, Chairman Blackburn said, “I think that what we will do is pass our bill, and put in statute what we’re going to put in statute. Then you will see us move forward on this issue. I can’t control what the states do.”

Asked about other tech-related issues that might come before the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Blackburn said that the role of Internet platforms in spreading news, as well as misinformation, might be a subject for the digital commerce and consumer protection subcommittee, which is headed by Rep. Bob Latta (R., Ohio). “If they are going to be considered a news source, maybe they should have a news director,” she suggested.

Asked about political influences on content favored by platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, Rep. Blackburn said, “What we see is that they prioritize what they want to put forward first.” She said that some movie producers told her that YouTube blocked their trailers. The Issue would be a “worthy” subject for hearing, “and it’s something that people are interested in,” she said. “And algorithms. We actually had a hearing on algorithms.”

Asked about her expectations for Senate action on the RAY BAUM’s Act (HR 4986), which passed the House under suspension of the rules earlier this week (TR Daily, March 6), Chairman Blackburn said, “We anticipate that it will go through the Senate.” She added, “I actually think as the Senate works on the omnibus [spending bill to prevent a government shutdown later this month], you could see them incorporate this so that we do have a properly formed FCC and we have the updated authority that is needed to have that agency address the spectrum and communications needs of our country.”

HR 4986 would, among other things, reauthorize the FCC; implement agency reforms; authorize additional funding for the post-incentive auction repacking of full-power TV stations; authorize repacking-related funding for low-power TV, TV translator, FM radio stations, and consumer education; and 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 FCC to resume holding spectrum auctions.

Asked about a leaked proposal from an administration staffer for a national government-owned 5G network, Rep. Blackburn said, “I have to tell you I think somebody kind of got off the rails on that one. I don’t know where it came from. It wasn’t a conversation that I was a part of, but I was glad to see that they quickly discounted the issue and moved away from that.”

Asked about industry consolidation, Ms. Blackburn said, “I’m always concerned when you see big companies getting bigger. I think we are wise as members of Congress to be watchful. I think the FCC is wise to be watchful as we see different mergers beginning to take place.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

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