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Broadband Roundup: More Action on Connect America Fund, FTC versus FCC, NSA Surveillance Continues

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WASHINGTON, June 23, 2014 – The Federal Communications Commission announced that its open meeting on July 11 will center on closed captioning of internet protocol-delivered video clips, the Connect America Fund’s rural broadband expansion, and modernizing E-Rate to deliver digital learning.

Tom Wheeler explained more about the E-Rate modernization plan in a blog post on Friday, June 20. The agency is set to contribute $2 billion over the next two years toward Wi-Fi network upgrades in schools and libraries in addition to the fund’s $2.4 billion budget.

The stated goal is to connect 10 million students and discourage spending on older technologies like dial-up phones and pagers.

“Today, three out of five schools in America lack sufficient Wi-Fi capability needed to provide students with 21st Century educational tools,” said Wheeler. “As currently structured, E-Rate in past years has only been able to support Wi-Fi in 5 percent of schools and 1 percent of libraries. Last year, no money was available for Wi-Fi.”

“The new plan will make E-Rate dollars go farther by creating processes to drive down prices and increase transparency on how program dollars are spent. And it will simplify the application process for schools and libraries, making the program more efficient while reducing the potential for fraud and abuse.”

Wheeler also said the free market had “failed” to provide basic broadband “to more than 15 million Americans” in rural areas.  At a House Judiciary Committee hearing Friday, congressional Republicans said that the FCC has no business arbitrating over net neutrality, the National Journal reported. They think the task should actually be delegated to the Federal Trade Commission instead.

The FCC regulates communications networks while the FTC focuses on malicious business practices that harm competition and consumers.

“I believe that vigorous application of the antitrust laws can prevent dominant internet service providers from discriminating against competitors’ content or engaging in anticompetitive pricing practices,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, according to National Journal.

Democratic legislators disagreed, according to Bloomberg. They argued that FTC antitrust regulation is too narrow and neglects non-economic values like free speech.

“We need a regulatory solution to address potential threats to net neutrality and must allow the FCC to do its job,” said Rep. John Conyers, of Michigan, according to Bloomberg.

The Guardian reported reported that the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection will continue at least three more months following the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s approval of a Justice Department request on Thursday, June 19.

The Justice Department and director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said in a joint statement that extensions of the program are necessary since Congressional legislation specifying NSA parameters hasn’t yet passed.

“Given that legislation has not yet been enacted, and given the importance of maintaining the capabilities of the Section 215 telephony metadata program, the government has sought a 90-day reauthorization of the existing program,” said the joint statement, according to the Guardian.

FCC

Senators Set Up Universal Service Fund Working Group, As Cruz Mounts Criticism of Broadband Program

A new Senate working group is set to consider reforms to the USF.

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WASHINGTON, May 23, 2023 – Sens. Ben Lujan, D-N.M., and John Thune, R-S.D., announced a bipartisan Senate working group earlier this month that would evaluate and propose potential reforms to the Universal Service Fund and guide education, awareness, and policymaking on the topic. 

The USF, funded through a tax on voice service providers, supports four programs that make telephone and broadband services affordable for low-income households, health care providers, and schools and libraries. The fund’s sustainability has been under pressure with voice service revenues declining as more Americans use broadband services. 

The working group will consider the current state of the USF requirements and consider reforms that would ensure the Federal Communications Commission is able to achieve its mission of universal service across the United States. 

“Every community deserves a pathway to an affordable, resilient, and secure internet connection, and strengthening the Universal Service Fund is a key part of delivering our promise to connect every corner of America,” said Luján in a statement. 

Sen Shelley Capito, R-W.VA. said that, “All options need to be on the table to modernize and update the USF to encourage and maintain universal service with our sights set on a more responsible, predictable, and prudent USF.” 

Joining them in the working group are Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Shelley Capito, R-W.Va., Gary Peters, D-Mitch., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.  

Competitive Carriers Association CEO Tim Donovan commended the announcement, saying “USF programs are critical for competitive carriers and the consumers they serve. Going forward, these programs must provide sustainable, predictable, and sufficient support.” 

Congressional legislation addressing USF concerns

The announcement follows the reintroduction of the Funding Affordable Internet with Reliable Contributions Act in March by Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Ben Lugan, D-N.M., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. 

The FAIR Act would direct the FCC to conduct a feasibility study on collecting contributions from internet edge providers. It has passed the house and has been received in the Senate, awaiting a vote. 

Later in March, a bill was introduced in both chambers that would require the FCC within one year of the enactment to solidify rules to reform how the fund is supported and conduct a study on the need to broaden the fund’s base. The Reforming Broadband Connectivity Act of 2023 is a version of a similar bill introduced in 2021. 

In August, the FCC submitted a letter to Congress, urging it to “provide the commission with the legislative tools needed to make changes to the contributions methodology and base” for the USF.  

Currently, there is “significant ambiguity in the record regarding the scope of the commission’s existing authority to broaden the base of contributors,” read the report. The FCC called for more power to make the necessary changes to support the program over the long term. 

Ted Cruz takes USF management to task

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., said in his opening statements to a Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband hearing on May 11 that the USF is unshackled from congressional control and the FCC has avoided accountability for its “wasteful” and “ineffective” spending.  

By this time, the fifth and sixth circuit appeals courts ruled in favor of the FCC when they denied a challenge to the commission’s authority in collecting money for the USF. Consumers’ Research alleged that the FCC was unconstitutionally delegating a private entity, the Universal Service Administrative Company, to help run USF programs. The court overruled the opinion, claiming that “Congress chose to ‘confer substantial discretion’ over administration of the USF to the FCC.” 

Cruz said the FCC has never held a commission-level vote on a USF tax increase, instead choosing to passively enable hikes through a bureaucratic process, claimed Cruz in his remarks. The FCC has a couple of weeks to either approve or challenge the amount determined by USAC that needs to be collected from voice service providers. 

“All told, the FCC has spent more than $156 billion on USF programs over the past twenty years. It’s unclear what American consumers have to show for it—other than higher phone bills,” Cruz said.

It is past due for Congress to get USF spending under control, he said. The solution is not to expand the base as it would not address the USF’s “underlying accountability failures.”

He called for Congress to consider all options of USF reform, “including subjecting it to the appropriations process, eliminating duplicative programs, and preserving only those efforts that demonstrate quantifiable benefits for American consumers.

“It has imposed ever-increasing tax burdens on American consumers without sufficient checks and balances or oversight from Congress,” he wrote, claiming that the USF has morphed into a “regressive, hidden tax.” 

Similarly, the FCC “claims the new ACP program is successful but offers no data showing it has increased broadband adoption among low-income Americans as intended,” he said, claiming that the FCC is not responsibly managing the funds and rejecting the suggestion to increase FCC legislative authority. The ACP provides a monthly discount of up to $30 and $75 on tribal lands for connectivity. 

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Biden Announces Anna Gomez as Nominee for Fifth FCC Commissioner

Biden announces new FCC commissioner nomination following Sohn’s withdrawal.

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Photo of Anna Gomez, the president's newest nomination for fifth FCC commissioner

WASHINGTON, May 22, 2023 – President Joe Biden announced Monday his intention to nominate experienced telecommunications attorney Anna Gomez as commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. 

Democrat Gomez currently serves as a senior advisor for international information and communications policy in the State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy. She served as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Deputy Administrator from 2009 to 2013 and spent over a decade in various positions at the FCC.  

If voted in by the Senate, she would break the party deadlock of two Democrat and two Republican commissioners.

In a statement, Gomez thanked Biden for the “honor” and said she is “humbled and grateful. If confirmed, I look forward to working with Chairwoman [Jessica Rosenworcel] and my fellow Commissioners to bring the benefits of modern communications to all.”

Gomez “brings with her a wealth of telecommunications experience, a substantial record of public service, and a history of working to ensure the U.S. stays on the cutting edge of keeping us all connected. I wish her all the best during the confirmation process,” read a statement from Rosenworcel of the nominations. 

Several trade associations, including the NCTA – the Internet and Television Association, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, Competitive Carriers Association, and the Satellite Safety Alliance, released comments Monday to congratulate Gomez on her nomination and support Biden’s step to empower the FCC.

Doris Matsui, D-C.A., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, released a statement commending the choice. “Gomez is the right choice to serve as our next FCC commissioner,” she said.

The FCC has been in a party deadlock for Biden’s entire presidency as a result of the Senate’s inability to vote on his first nomination, Gigi Sohn. Sohn’s nomination was announced in October 2021 but was never voted in because of criticism from Republican and moderate Democrat senators.  

She withdrew her candidacy earlier this year, citing lawmaker attacks on her career, and is now serving as executive director of the American Association for Public Broadband. 

Starks and Carr renominated

Biden’s also outlined his intention to renominate Democrat Geoffrey Starks and Republican Brendan Carr, both current commissioners, for another five-year term. 

Regarding the renomination of Carr, Rosenworcel said, “from improving network resiliency in light of destructive hurricanes to keeping our networks safe in the face of evolving threats, the FCC has benefitted from his public service.” 

Of Starks, she said that “he has been a consistent advocate for expanding the reach of communications and the opportunities of the digital age to all.”  

“I look forward to working with a full complement of FCC Commissioners to advance our mission to connect everyone, everywhere,” she concluded. 

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FCC Votes for Foreign Telecom Ownership Reporting, Emergency Alert Flexibility

Thursday’s vote requires a one-time foreign ownership reporting requirement.

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WASHINGTON, April 20, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Thursday to move forward on a proposal requiring carriers operating in the country to report their ownership information more regularly, enhance accessibility and flexibility with wireless emergency alerts, and improve the spectrum environment for new entrants and technologies.

To further combat insidious national security threats, the commission immediately ordered at its open meeting Thursday a one-time reporting requirement for telecommunications companies with section 214 authorization, which allows them to transact in the country, to report foreign ownership information. In essence, the new order will provide the commission with an updated look at the ownership picture of these authorized companies. The commission has expressed concern that it is not updated regularly about firm ownership because under the current rules, a company is only required to update the commission with ownership information when there has been a modification, transfer of control or discontinuance of service.

“There are consequences for failing to file accurate or timely information with the FCC about changes related to foreign involvement in companies with access to U.S. communications networks,” Loyaan Egal, chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau, said in a press release.  “When it comes to assessing U.S. national security and law enforcement interests, we will be vigilant in ensuring that companies comply with these important disclosure requirements,” including Thursday’s one-time reporting order. The commission has noted previous settlements it obtained from companies that had failed to get prior authorization for changes in the control of companies.

The regulator also voted at the same time to collect comments on a proposal that would require these companies to report more regularly on ownership changes. Specifically, the commission is looking at either adopting rules requiring companies to renew their section 214 authority every 10 years or requiring them to periodically update information about the companies.

The commission is simultaneously asking for comments on further proposed measures, including requiring section 214 applicants to provide information about expected future services and geographic markets they intend to serve; requiring applicants to identify on a periodic basis the facilities they use in Canada and/or Mexico; require them to commit to adhere to baseline cybersecurity standards; require them to certify in their applications whether or not they use equipment from a blacklist of companies deemed a national security risk; and require a lower threshold to report foreign stakeholder ownership, from 10 to 5 percent.

The latter drew a complaint from two investment firms, one of them notably represented by former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a meeting with agency commissioners last week. The concern was that the lower reporting threshold would deter investment in their firms, which bankroll telecom investment, because there is a presumption of confidentiality with their financial contributions.

Wireless emergency alert accessibility and flexibility

The commission also voted Thursday to initiate a consultation on proposed rules that would increase the accessibility and flexibility of wireless emergency alerts.

The FCC notes that 26 million people in the United States do not speak as their primary language English or Spanish, which are the only two languages in which these alerts are sent. As such, the commission is proposing the alerts be translated on mobile devices into the 13 “most commonly spoken languages” in the country other than English.

Other proposals include allowing for the alerts to feature a small image of a child missing during an AMBER alert, include links to locations where emergency situations are, providing alerting authorities with the ability to send messages without the blaring sound, and providing subscribers with the option of receiving alerts with sound or just phone vibrations.

One complaint of emergency alerts has been consumers getting loud alerts in the middle of the night where the emergency was not in their area.

Comments on the proposals are due within 30 days of publication on the federal register.

More efficient use of spectrum

The commission also adopted a policy statement that would commit the regulator to a “holistic” spectrum policy framework that it said would better facilitate new entrants and technologies.

Central to spectrum’s use is its delivery without causing interference with other services, including with adjacent radiowaves on the frequency spectrum. Historically, the commission has required new wireless services to bear the load of showing that they would not cause interference with existing services in any situation. Older receivers did not need to meet specific design or performance criteria, according to the commission.

Thursday’s policy statement, while still requiring that burden on new providers, would also require existing services to update their receivers to comply with modern realities.

“Accordingly, we encourage stakeholders to design receivers that not only meet their services’ needs, but also mitigate the impacts from undesired signals outside of their services’ assigned frequencies,” the commission said.

“Further, as new receiver technologies are developed with improved interference immunity, and as legacy equipment is being replaced over time, we encourage service providers periodically to deploy receivers that reflect the latest technical improvements,” it added.

In a statement, internet advocacy group Public Knowledge said this is a welcome effort to promote a more balanced approach to spectrum management.

“Today, legacy systems too often prevent innovation because they rely on outdated assumptions and have not been upgraded to reflect the current environment, limiting our ability to make full use of our spectrum resources,” said the organization’s policy counsel Kathleen Burke. “For far too long, our approach to new technology has focused solely on the new systems without any thought to how incumbent systems can make more room on our spectrum airwaves.”

“Upgrading outdated systems and equipment to increase spectrum access is one of the most overlooked aspects of spectrum management – presenting a prime opportunity for re-evaluating our policies in light of technological advancements,” Burke added. “This new policy statement embraces a fair approach to managing our spectrum resources by finally adopting the principles that minimizing harmful interference is a mutual obligation of band entrants and incumbents and that no spectrum user has a guarantee of zero interference.”

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