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Free Press Panel Blasts ‘Broken’ FCC

BOSTON, April 13, 2011 – Panelists at the Free Press National Conference for Media Reform railed on the Federal Communications Commission over the weekend, debating to what extent the Commission has been “captured” by industry and how to fix it.

Joel Kelsey, Political Advisor at Free Press, moderated the panel, entitled “How to Fix the Broken FCC.” The event included participants from the public interest, industry and government sectors.

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BOSTON, April 13, 2011 – Panelists at the Free Press National Conference for Media Reform railed on the Federal Communications Commission over the weekend, debating to what extent the Commission has been “captured” by industry and how to fix it.

Joel Kelsey, Political Advisor at Free Press, moderated the panel, entitled “How to Fix the Broken FCC.” The event included participants from the public interest, industry and government sectors.

Kelsey started the discussion by posing the question of the difference between capture by the industry and corruption. He also highlighted issues such as a perceived “revolving door” between employment at the FCC and private industry and the comparative discrepancy between the lobbying representation from the public and that of the telecommunications industry.

“We’re really at an important inflection point,” said Kelsey. “We find the vision we all share and the policies we’re all fighting for are crashing into a political juggernaut in D.C.”

Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of industry watchdog, Public Knowledge, called attention to the entrenched relationship between a government regulator and the industry it oversees as problematic. Repeatedly during the hour-long panel, she pointed a finger at current FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, as having failed to provide competent leadership at the agency.

“We have to tell the White House that we want leadership that leads to an open and democratic medium,” said Sohn. “Unfortunately we don’t have the leadership at the FCC to get the policies we want.”

Sohn also called for a mandatory 5-year buffer between employment with the FCC and private industry – and vice versa.

Chris Libertelli, senior director of government and public affairs at Skype, noted the sometimes-cozy relationships between the industry and the agency and said that a strong conviction was integral to avoiding industry capture.

“We need intellectual leadership,” said Libertelli, “someone who comes to the agency with the mentality of ‘here’s who I’ve been reading, here is the intellectual framework I want to institute.'”

Libertelli, however, disagreed with Sohn’s employment buffer proposal, saying that such a rule would discourage highly-qualified people from considering government service.

Kelsey also presented the question of whether the perceived lack of philosophical direction at the FCC originated within the agency or as a result of influence from the outside. According to Jonathan Askin, a professor at Brooklyn Law school and former senior attorney at the FCC, the problems come from both within and without the Commission.

“The problem is both that there are 100 AT&T lobbyists,” said Askin, throwing the first of what would be several jabs at the telecommunications giant, “but also that they do the work for the staff and the staff lets them do it.”

Askin also asserted that the problem goes beyond the Commission itself, to Congress, which confirms the commissioners.

“At the top, it’s almost impossible to get an independent champion at the FCC,” he said, “when Congress is so heavily influenced by the industry.”

Some members of the panel called out the effects of an agency they seemed to describe as largely a puppet of industry interests through the example of the recent Open Internet Order. That order, which established net neutrality rules for Internet Service Providers, did not go nearly far enough they said. Askin commented that the Order was not “real net neutrality.”

Using the net neutrality rules as an example, Malkia Cyril, executive director and founder of the Center for Media Justice, joined Sohn and Askin in predicting that their perceived weakness of the Open Internet Order signified a likely acquiescence by the FCC to the industry in the upcoming AT&T/T-Mobile merger review.

“Everyday people need to turn their attention from the FCC to the Department of Justice and let them know very clearly what we need out of this [merger],” said Cyril.

Both the DOJ and FCC will review the merger to ensure it comports with antitrust considerations and the public interest, respectively.

While Sohn predicted the DOJ would eventually block the merger – as Libertelli pointed out, Justice has put the kibosh on 2 out of 3 mergers with similar conditions – she did not anticipate a close look by the FCC. Even in the event that the DOJ blocks the merger, however, she asserted that the merger process would sideline T-Mobile in the meantime and may damage competition in the marketplace as much as a successful merger.

Libertelli, in response, called the merger an attempt to replicate the 1913 deal that formalized AT&T’s monopoly over the phone system.

“AT&T is trying to make another Kingsbury Commitment,” he said.

FCC

FCC Encouraged to Limit Data Collection on Affordable Connectivity Program, Others Want More

One trade group warns about providers leaving the program if data collection too onerous.

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Photo of Jonathan Spalter, CEO of US Telecom, from ISE

WASHINGTON, August 9, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is being warned not to overly burden internet service providers with its Congress-mandated order to collect pricing and subscription rates data from participants in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Under the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the FCC is required by November 15 to adopt rules to collect annual data relating to the price and subscription rates of each internet service offering by a provider participating in the broadband subsidy program, which offers up to $30 per month for low-income households (up to $75 per month on tribal lands) and a one-time $100 off a device.

But a number of submissions are warning the FCC against rules that require any additional data collection efforts beyond the scope of the law so as not to unduly burden providers and, at least one other trade group said, push providers away from participating in the program.

Telecommunications company Lumen, for example, recommended the commission limit the scope of the annual reporting to monthly pricing and to exempt “excessively granular” requirements, such as promotional rates, grandfathered plans, or subscriber-level data, which the commission is proposing to collect.

Communications companies and industry groups want to limit data collection

T-Mobile said in its submission that Congress told the FCC to rely on the broadband consumer labels, which are due this November, for pricing. The commission asked for comment on the interpretation of the IIJA requiring a reliance on price information displayed on the consumer labels.

For subscription information, T-Mobile urges the commission to look at data collection from the Universal Service Administrative Company – which administers high-cost broadband programs for the Universal Service Fund – to avoid “adopting a largely redundant collection that would impose additional burdens” on all parties.

“The IIJA leaves the Commission no discretion to collect any additional price information, and the statute does not require collection of data on other service plan and network characteristics,” such as speed and latency and data allowances, the submission said.

“Collection of this additional data would create additional burdens and is unnecessary,” the submission added.

Similar limitations were also proposed by telecom Starry Inc., which pushed for privacy protection by collecting data at a higher level (such as the state) and working with information collected in other transparency efforts, such as the consumer labels.

Industry association IMCOMPAS, which represents internet and competitive communications networks, told the FCC in a submission that data collection should be limited to the state level to protect consumer privacy and proprietary information of the providers; streamline other data collection, including the consumer labels; and provide instruction on how to providers to better understand the data collection rules.

Concurring with this position is the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, which said data collection must be simple and should not go to a level of detail that goes beyond what the IIJA calls for. The trade group, which represents small providers, said such data collection beyond that required in the law could burden companies with small teams.

The included data, WISPA said, should be an annual aggregate of items including broadband plans subscribed to by ACP customers, number of subscribers for each plan, and pricing minus promotional rates, taxes, discounts or pricing breakdowns for bundled services. Any additional onerous collection could see providers leave the program, it added.

Industry groups US Telecom and NCTA – Internet and Television Association similarly urged a simple annual report that captured undiscounted monthly pricing of each broadband service offering and the number of customers subscribed. The Competitive Carriers Association and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association also recommended a limited data collection approach.

ACA Connects, a trade group representing small and medium-sized independent operators, said the FCC should direct providers to report numbers of ACP households “that are applying their benefit to each speed tier along with the standard price of each tier on a state-by-state basis” – rather than the FCC-proposed continuous collection of subscriber-level data via the National Lifeline Accountability Database, it said, adding the commission should be mindful of the time it takes for completion, as smaller providers have limited resources.

Others pushing for subscriber-level, more data

The cities of New York and Seattle, in their submissions, said the FCC should collect subscriber-level information to assess different service adoption rates on different plans over time – publishing categories based on price, plan and performance by the zip code. It added it is not seeking information about the households itself, and said this would not be a privacy concern as others have pointed out.

Similarly, the Connecticut Office of State Broadband said the commission should go beyond the IIJA requirements by mandating information including performance of the plans and whether a device is offered.

For the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, data collection on the ACP should include data beyond what’s included in the consumer labels, and should include other items such as installation, equipment, service, miscellaneous, data and usage fees, and state and local taxes.

In a joint submission, non-profit media group Common Sense and internet advocacy group Public Knowledge recommended data collection that is necessary to monitor the ACP, which include promotional rates, taxes, overage costs and device and equipment costs. This way, they say, the FCC can get a better idea of how much is going toward internet access after applying the subsidy. They are also asking for the commission to collect information on whether the subsidy is being used to upgrade or discount current service, and how customers are becoming aware of the program.

The commission is currently trying to get more Americans on the program, which has over 13 million households signed up. That number, the commission said last week, should be much higher. As such, it ordered the development of an outreach program to market the subsidy.

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FCC

Former Commissioners Commend FCC in Absence of Fifth Commissioner

But there’s concern a Senate vote on a fifth FCC commissioner will not happen before midterms.

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Screenshot of Former FCC Chairman Richard Wiley

WASHINGTON, July 25, 2022 – Former chairs of the Federal Communications Commission commended the current FCC administration at a symposium on Wednesday for working together on important issues with a 2-2 party split, but expressed increasing uncertainty about the fate of a fifth commissioner.

The Senate vote to confirm Gigi Sohn, a Democrat and net neutrality advocate, has stalled for months. And former FCC commissioners were wary of her prospects before the midterm elections in November. Some Republican critics are concerned that Sohn, nominated by President Joe Biden in October, won’t be able to remain non-partisan on the issues she would encounter as a commissioner.

“Confirmation is still possible, but with the extended August recess and looming midterm election, there aren’t a lot of legislative days to get the job done,” said former FCC Chair Richard Wiley. With each passing day, the confirmation becomes more difficult, agreed panelists, as the Senate could flip to a Republican-controlled chamber come November.

In the meantime, the former commissioners praised the efforts of the current staff. “A lot of credit should go to the Chairwoman [Jessica] Rosenworcel and indeed to all the commissioners for maintaining a robust agenda over the last year and half and really getting decisions made,” said Wiley. “Two Democrats, two Republicans have worked together to serve the public interest.”

William Kennard added that, “this is an energetic commission, they want to get things done.”

Some initiatives that have received unanimous FCC votes include spectrum-sharing initiatives and robocall enforcement.

Editor’s note: The comments in this story were quoted from and attributed to a July 20, 2022, symposium. That symposium was hosted by the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council. 

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FCC

FCC Adopts Spectrum-Sharing Incentives, Proposal on Call Traffic Arbitrage

The agency voted to incentivize the sharing of underutilized spectrum to increase connectivity in the nation.

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Photo of Nathan Simington, Brendan Carr, Jessica Rosenworcel of FCC (left to right)

WASHINGTON, July 14, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission voted at its July open meeting Thursday to adopt spectrum-sharing incentives and to crack down on the practice of driving up revenue from call traffic inflation.

The commission voted to adopt a program that will build incentives for larger spectrum holders to make underutilized spectrum available to smaller carriers, tribal nations and entities serving rural areas. The program, called the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program, will have incentives including longer license terms, extensions on buildout obligations, and more flexible construction requirements.

The commission is also seeking comment on whether to expand the program eligibility to non-common carriers serving non-rural areas.

“I’m excited to see the new deployments this program will foster,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “I think it will help expand wireless deployment in rural and tribal communities… to make sure we reach 100 percent of us with high-speed service.”

Experts have advocated for more carve-outs for unlicensed spectrum to tackle the growing demand for connections and relieve congestion on existing frequencies. The Rural Wireless Association applauded the FCC Thursday on the vote, saying it believes that program can “encourage the necessary transactions that can expand telecommunications and broadband service in rural America.”

Cracking down on call traffic arbitrage

The commission also proposed rules to address the practice of telephone companies inflating traffic to generate more revenue, which raises costs for long-distance carriers.

Intercarrier compensation is the system of regulated payments that sees carriers compensate each other for cross-carrier call traffic. Some companies, however, continue to take advantage of the system by inflating traffic to extract additional revenues, the FCC identified. As a result, the FCC proposes to adopt monitoring rules to identify illegal arbitrage practices.

“This rulemaking is designed to shut down the loopholes these companies are exploiting,” said Rosenworcel. It would require providers to tally and report call traffic volumes to the FCC to verify its compliance with access stimulation rules, which were adopted in 2019 to clarify financial responsibility for calls.

Other actions

The FCC also proposed a $116 million fine against ChariTel Inc. for a robocall scheme that made nearly 10 million robocalls to toll-free numbers, which then generated revenue for the company from payments by the toll-free service provider.

FCC commissioners further voted to open an inquiry to evaluate how the Lifeline and Affordable Connectivity Program can be modified to support the connectivity needs of domestic abuse survivors.

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