Senators Question Starks on Collegiality, 5G, USF
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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Senators Question Starks on Collegiality, 5G, USF

Members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today sought assurances from Democratic FCC nominee Geoffrey Starks on issues ranging from his willingness to work cooperatively with the Commission’s Republican majority, other agencies, and Congress to his commitment to promote 5G deployment, support net neutrality, and back E-rate and other universal service programs.

Mr. Starks, who would fill the vacancy left by the recent departure of Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn, is currently an assistant chief in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, where he works with the Investigations and Hearings Division and the USF Strike Force. He joined the agency in 2015.

From 2013 to 2015, he was senior counsel to the deputy attorney general at the Justice Department. He has also clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (St. Louis).

The White House announced his nomination earlier this month to a term that would expire June 30, 2022 (TR Daily, June 4). Sources had said that Congressional Black Caucus members and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) backed Mr. Starks, who is African American, for the Commission seat (TR Daily, March 9). Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee ranking minority member Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) had supported the committee’s senior minority counsel, John Branscome, a former FCC staffer, for the Democratic seat on the FCC.

During today’s confirmation hearing, which also included Consumer Product Safety Commission nominee Peter Feldman, who is currently a Senate Commerce Committee staffer, committee Chairman John Thune (R., S.D.) said that it is important that members of the FCC try to seek “common ground” and he urged Mr. Starks “to do that as often as possible.”

Chairman Thune noted the changes that current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who took over the agency in January 2017, has made “a number of important reforms to improve the agency’s processes and transparency, including publicly releasing text of all agenda items in advance of Commission meetings and instituting a process of sharing documents with other commissioners before discussing them publicly. It is my hope that this spirit of openness, transparency, and collaboration at the FCC is continued, and it is my hope that Mr. Starks will embrace this approach if confirmed.”

Sen. Nelson criticized the current FCC majority for deciding to “turn their backs” on consumers by reversing the agency’s 2015 open Internet order and for its determination “to undercut and do damage to the great American tradition of local broadcasting.”

Committee member Jerry Moran (R., Kan.) spoke in support of the nomination of Mr. Starks, who is from Kansas, noting that “upon his confirmation there will be two Kansans on the FCC.” Chairman Pai is also from Kansas. “I am fully expecting a Kansan to provide common sense and good judgment,” Sen. Moran said.

Sen. Moran read a letter from one of his constituents, who happens to be Mr. Starks’s mother, and urged other senators to confirm the nomination.

Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II (D., Mo.), a member of the CBC whose congressional district includes Kansas City, Mo., addressed the Senate committee members from the witness table before the nominees read their statements. He noted to laughter that Mr. Starks, who is from Kansas City, is a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, “as you all should be.”

In his opening statement, Mr. Starks said, “The Commission is a talented, passionate, and hard-working team. Over the past few years, I have worked extensively with FCC staff and leadership across the agency, and I look forward to building on those relationships. In particular, I must highlight what an honor it is to be considered for the seat that was occupied by the barrier-breaking tenure of Commissioner Mignon Clyburn — the first woman to chair the FCC.”

He added that the “much of the core mission of the FCC is the same now as it was [when it was established in 1934]: connect all of the American people to safe and secure networks at reasonable charges; protect consumers; and promote localism, diversity, competition and innovation. If confirmed, I will be guided by this continuing mission, and will devote myself to being a careful steward of the responsibilities entrusted to the agency by Congress to advance and defend the public interest. I shall be guided by the parameters Congress has established for the agency: to act according to the direction of Congress wherever it has spoken on a matter in question and, wherever the statute grants the FCC discretion, to review the applicable rules and record in order to reach a reasoned determination.”

Mr. Starks continued, “As a public servant at DOJ and in the Enforcement Bureau, I have seen first-hand the importance of oversight and accountability. If fortunate enough to be confirmed, I will implement the priorities of this Committee, and seek opportunities to build working relationships with all of you to ensure that the Commission is focused on the work that best serves the interests of the American people as consumers, taxpayers and citizens.”

He said that if confirmed, his initial focus at the FCC would be on (1) protecting consumers and the public interest, “whether it’s the scourge of robocalls, or protecting their privacy and the values of localism and diversity in our national media”; (2) promoting robust broadband access for all Americans, by ensuring “that we create the right incentives for ubiquitous broadband investment and deployment, and that our universal service funding is efficiently and appropriately spent in the course of securing the deployment objectives you have established”; and (3) advancing telemedicine opportunities.

Mr. Starks noted that members of his family “practice medicine in areas where telehealth options are helping everyday Americans: South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, and Virginia.”

As nominees and hearing witnesses often do, he offered an examples from committee members’ home states, including the teletrauma assessment effort of Avera Health ECare system in Sioux Falls in Chairman Thune’s home state.

“In a similar vein, doctors in Kansas and Missouri have made telemedicine an integral part of the fight against the opioid abuse epidemic, helping patients to connect with caregivers when there are no other options. Moreover, telemedicine is already providing critical care to nearly 45% of veterans living in rural communities. But for telemedicine to be a universal reality, citizens and the healthcare providers that serve them need access to affordable broadband connectivity wherever they live and serve. The FCC has a lot to say about that and I look forward to jumping in on this issue with the FCC team and our partners in other parts of government and the private sector that directly affect the health and quality of life of Americans,” Mr. Starks said.

Chairman Thune asked both nominees whether, if confirmed, they would pledge “to work collaboratively with this committee” to respond to members’ inquiries in a timely fashion. Both nominees said they would.

Chairman Thune asked Mr. Starks whether he believes congressional legislation would be the best way to address the debate over net neutrality enforcement.

“I defer to Congress on its legislative priorities,” Mr. Starks said, adding that the FCC “is a creature of Congress.”

Sen. Thune asked Mr. Starks whether he agrees that it is important for the FCC and the Department of Agriculture, which administers telecom and broadband grant and loan programs through its Rural Utilities Service, to coordinate their programs to avoid funding overbuilds.

“I do agree,” Mr. Starks said. “I think it’s essential to coordinate to ensure we don’t have duplication. The dollars are too precious,” he added.

Sen. Thune asked Mr. Starks whether he agreed that while protecting consumers from robocallers, it’s also “essential that those calling in good calling in good faith have a reasonable means to contact their customers.” Mr. Starks said yes.

Sen. Moran asked Mr. Starks what actions he sees the FCC taking to advance 5G.

Mr. Starks said there are “two pieces”: ensuring enough spectrum is “brought to market” in the low, middle, and high bands, and smoothing facilities deployment by modernizing cell siting and permitting processes.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.) said that she was concerned about the freedom of press under the current administration, noting that as an FCC Commissioner, Mr. Starks will have “an impact on the health of the media landscape.”

“Can you commit to upholding the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment in the face of attacks from this administration?” she asked. Mr. Starks said yes.

Sen. Hassan, one of the sponsors of the Advancing Innovation and Reinvigorating Widespread Access to Viable Electromagnetic Spectrum (AIRWAVES) Act (S 1682), which would establish a pipeline of licensed and unlicensed spectrum and require that 10% of proceeds from auctions be used for wireless infrastructure deployment in rural areas, asked Mr. Starks for his “reaction” to the bill and the need to create a pipeline for licensed and unlicensed spectrum.

“It is essential that we have both licensed and unlicensed spectrum,” Mr. Starks said. He added, “With respect to the legislation, I would be eager to work with you. I think it is excellent legislation.”

Sen. Hassan asked Mr. Starks for this thoughts on Universal Service Fund programs can be leveraged to ensure connectivity at work, school, and home.

“In my Enforcement Bureau capacity, I have been an enforcer of these programs,” Mr. Starks said. “I deeply believe in these programs. Lifeline provides the tools needed for people to pull themselves out of poverty.” He also praised the benefits of other USF programs, including the E-rate, high-cost, and rural health care programs.

“I would highlight to you as well that these dollars are precious, and I have been proud to be an enforcer of these programs” to address waste, fraud, and abuse, he said.

Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) asked him whether he believes the FCC’s 2015 classification of broadband Internet access (BIAS) as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulation under Title II of the Communications Act was correct. Mr. Starks said yes.

During a second round of questions, Chairman Thune asked for suggestions on how FCC processes could be improved.

“I do think that the Chairman’s recent transparency has been a tremendous change for the good,” Mr. Starks said. He suggested there is room for improvement in the FCC’s website, particularly with respect to making systems for the public to submit input work better on mobile devices.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D., Nev.) asked for the FCC nominee’s views on a proposal circulated within the Trump administration earlier this year (TR Daily, Jan. 29) for the U.S. government to build a nationwide 5G network that is secure against hackers and ensures that the U.S. effectively competes against China in the Internet of things ecosystem.

Mr. Starks said, “I have to say I haven’t seen a fully baked idea or plan there. I do understand generally the concern … that there is a need to have network security. … But with regard to a nationalized 5G network, I haven’t seen a full plan, but [from] what I have seen, I don’t think is a good idea.”

Sen. Cortez Masto asked for a commitment from Mr. Starks to “come to Nevada” and to “work with other agencies” on facilities siting and deployment, “particularly” the Bureau of Land Management. Mr. Starks said yes on both counts.

Ms. Cortez Masto also asked Mr. Feldman, the CPSC nominee, for his thoughts on that agency’s role in ensuring consumer safety with respect to the Internet of things.

Mr. Feldman replied, “That’s a critical issues that the commission just recently began playing attention to.” He added, “If confirmed, I would make it a priority to monitor the marketplace.”

Sen. Thune told Mr. Starks that he is working on a draft bill to streamline broadband deployment on non-federal lands. “What do you think should be done?” he asked.

Mr. Starks noted that the number of cell sites is expected to increase anywhere from 10-fold to 100-fold as the industry moves from conventionally sized cells to small cells. “The FCC can use its convening power to bring people together,” he suggested. He added, “I think there is a model code that would help localities decide where they want to end up.”

Chairman Thune told Mr. Starks that he looks “forward to working your nomination forward.” Toward that end, he asked for responses to committee members’ written questions by the close of business this Monday. —Lynn Stanton, lynn.stanton@wolterskluwer.com

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