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FCC General Counsel Gets Tough Questions at D.C. Circuit Court’s Net Neutrality Hearing

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WASHINGTON, February 2, 2019 — Network Neutrality once again took center stage Friday as the Federal Communications Commission found itself defending its repeal of Obama-era Open Internet rules before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Friday’s oral argument was the most recent of many partisan clashes between the advocates of the FCC position under former Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, and that of current Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican. Now, the agency  is defending its December 2017 Pai rules before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On a 2-1 vote in June 2016, a three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld the February 2015 Wheeler net neutrality rules. That decision was reviewed en banc by the entire appeals court, and upheld in May 2017 (see below).

Following the 2016 presidential election and the shift from majority-Democrat to a majority-Republican FCC, Pai announced that the agency would re-reclassify broadband as an “information service,” rather than the “telecommunications service” under the Wheeler rules.

The lawsuit, led by the Mozilla Foundation and others seeking to judicially overturn the 2017 Pai rules,  was joined by more than 36 pro-Network Neutrality interest groups and entities, including the California Public Utilities Commission, Public Knowledge, and the Benton Foundation.

Legal arguments about the definitions of ‘telecommunications’ and ‘information’ services

FCC General Counsel Thomas Johnson spent much of the four-hour oral argument session trying to convince judges that the FCC was correct in its decision that broadband internet did not fall under the legal definition of a “telecommunications service” — “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received.”

Instead, he argued that broadband was an “information service,” defined under U.S. law as “the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications.”

When Circuit Judge Patricia Millett — an appointee of President Barack Obama — noted that the inclusion of the phrase “via telecommunications” in the latter definition implied that an “information service” is something offered in addition to the transmission of information, Johnson suggested that broadband was an “information service” because providers offer Domain Name System services to allow users access to remote services by way of a domain name (e.g. Wikipedia.org) rather than by a hard-to-remember Internet Protocol address.

“DNS, for example, it generates queries to other servers, it stores and retrieves domain name information, it translates domain name information that is provided by the user into an IP address and back,” Johnson said.

But Millett remained skeptical and continued to press Johnson on why telephone service, which she noted “is constantly used to acquire information and share information,” is still considered a “telecommunications service” for regulatory purposes.

“It seems to be the exact same functionality, but one is voice and one is typing,” she said.

Did the FCC’s decision to lift bans on blocking and throttling affect public safety?

Another matter of contention during Friday’s arguments was whether the FCC’s ending of a ban on blocking or throttling of internet traffic fell afoul of the commission’s requirement to consider the impact of its rules on public safety.

This issue was raised by Danielle Goldstein, the attorney representing Santa Clara County, California, which joined the suit after firefighters responding to last year’s wildfires saw their internet access throttled by Verizon.

Noting that the FCC’s authority to preempt state and local laws regulations does not absolve it from its responsibility to consider the public safety impact of its rulings, Goldstein said: “The FCC can’t fail to address public safety, especially in an order that purports to preempt state and local government’s ability to fill that regulatory gap,”

When Johnson suggested that the burden of proving harm from the regulations would rest with public safety agencies, Millett took on an irate tone as she interrupted him: “Why is the burden on them?” she asked.

“The statute repeats again and again that public safety is an important goal, you had comments [from the public] expressing concerns, a lot of them. It seems like you have a statutory obligation, you had a lot of comments, a serious issue that should have been addressed by the commission in the order.”

Judge Robert Wilkins, another Obama appointee, noted that the broad language the FCC used in its reclassification order seemed to prohibit a state from restricting broadband carriers’ ability to throttle service to public safety personnel like firefighters.

“Your order would seem to prohibit that [hypothetical law] because your order is written very broadly,” Wilkins said. “Doesn’t it say that basically all state and local regulations with respect to broadband are preempted?”

While Williams did not directly answer Wilkins’ question, he said the FCC was not trying to impact public safety functions, adding that whether a particular state law would be preempted “would depend on the facts of that particular case.”

Further questions about whether the Obama-era rules stymied infrastructure investment

Johnson also had trouble convincing Millett that the FCC’s claim that the Obama-era rules stymied infrastructure investment by broadband carriers was accurate, after she pointed out that providers had told investors the exact opposite of the FCC’s claim.

After Johnson called the providers’ statements “ambiguous,” Millett interjected again: “What is ambiguous about, ‘it’s not going to affect us, we’re going to keep going ahead [with investment]?’” she asked, adding that companies’ statements to investors “have to be true.”

“It’s almost like someone doing something under oath. That’s pretty good evidence, if there’s a penalty if they’re lying or even engaging in misleading puffery,” she said.

Only the latest of many legal maneuverings regarding net neutrality

The third judge on the panel considering Mozilla Foundation v. FCC is Senior Judge Stephen Williams, who dissented from the 2-1 majority that ruled for the Wheeler FCC in the 2016 case US Telecom v. FCC. 

The two other judges in that case, David Tatel and Sri Srinivasan, were also Democratic appointees. When the matter went for an en banc review, Tatel and Srinivasan penned the majority opinion against overturning the panel’s decision.

Of the 11 full-time judges on the court at that time, eight participated in the review. Most notable were the two judges who dissented from denying the review: Janice Rogers Brown and Brett Kavanaugh, each of whom penned extensive opinions. Other than Tatel and Srinivasan denying review, and Brown and Kavanaugh favoring review, the positions of the other four judges who participated were not released — other than the fact that a majority denied review.

While the decision denying review was considered a minor victory by advocates of net neutrality, at that time the Pai FCC was already deep into its reconsideration of the Wheeler regulations. The agency effectively under a 180 degree turnabout — lifting the Wheeler rules and effectively eliminating all net neutrality protections except for transparency rules — in December 2017.

It is that new rule-making that is the subject of the new three-judge panel’s current judicial review of FCC regulations.

(President Barack Obama delivers a statement announcing the nomination of three candidates — now judges — on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in the Rose Garden of the White House, June 4, 2013. Nominees from left are: Robert Leon Wilkins, Cornelia “Nina” Pillard, and Patricia Ann Millett. Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy.)

Andrew Feinberg was the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

FCC

Proposed Rules to Improve National Alert System Unnecessary, Say Critics

Proposed rules to improve EAS security and operational readiness are unnecessary, say commenters.

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Photo of Federal Emergency Management Agency

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2023 – Participants to the national public warning system claim that the Federal Communications Commission’s October rulemaking to improve its security and operational readiness will unduly increase resource and monetary burdens on participants. 

The national warning system is composed of the Emergency Alert System, which transmits important emergency information to affected areas over television and radio, and the Wireless Emergency Alert System, which delivers that information to the public on their wireless devices. Participation in the system is voluntary for wireless providers, but radio and television broadcasters are required to deliver Presidential alerts via the EAS. 

In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC sought comment on ways to strengthen the operational readiness of the warning system by requiring EAS participants to report compromises of equipment and WEA participants to annually certify to having a cybersecurity risk management plan in place. It further asked that commercial mobile service providers “take steps to ensure that only valid alerts are displayed on consumer devices,” citing several instances where false alerts were given following a system hack. 

Measures are unnecessary 

Participants argued that such measures are unnecessary in reply comments to the Commission.  

The proposals in the Notice are “unnecessary and will not meaningfully enhance operational readiness or security of EAS,” stated the National Association of Broadcasters in its comments, claiming that the Notice “presents only scant evidence of EAS equipment failures and new security threats, and thus does not justify the myriad measures proposed.” 

Furthermore, NAB claimed, the notice fails to present a clear rationale for how the Commission’s heightened situational awareness would improve EAS readiness. 

ACA Connects, a trade association representing small and mid-sized telecom and TV operators, added that the Notice identifies only two EAS security breaches in the past ten years, which, as the company said, is “hardly an epidemic.” 

Participating mobile service providers have cyber risk management plans in place already, making any separate cyber certification requirement for WEA unnecessary and likely to cause fragmentation of service-specific plans, claimed wireless trade association, CTIA. 

Increased participant burden 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for national-level activation and tests of the systems, stated in its comments that it is concerned about the potential increased burden placed upon participants. 

EAS participants voluntarily and at no cost provide state and local alerts and mobile service providers voluntarily participate in WEA without compensation. FEMA argued that some stakeholders may “have difficulty justifying additional resources necessary to comply with increasing regulation.” 

The proposed reporting, certification, and cyber management obligations are far too complex for many EAS participants to implement, stated NAB, claiming that the Commission’s estimation of costs are “wildly unrealistic,” not considering additional hires such a plan would require. 

Mobile provider AT&T added that requirements for updating cybersecurity plans would divert valuable resources from the ongoing, broad cybersecurity efforts that participants engage in daily. The proposed authentication would inhibit the timely release of critical emergency alerts without completely eliminating false WEA messages, it continued.  

The Center for internet Security, however, supported the FCC’s proposed actions, claiming that it moves forward with “critically important” measures to protect the nation’s alert systems from cyber threats. 

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5G

CES 2023: Commissioner Starks Highlights Environmental Benefits of 5G Connectivity

Starks also said federal housing support should be linked to the Affordable Connectivity Program.

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Photo of FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks (left) and CTA’s J. David Grossman

LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2023 – Commissioner Geoffrey Starks of the Federal Communications Commission spoke at the Consumer Electronics Show Saturday, touting connectivity assistance for individuals who benefit from housing assistance as well as the potential environmental benefits of 5G.

The FCC-administered Affordable Connectivity Program subsidizes monthly internet bills and one-time devices purchases for low-income Americans. Although many groups are eligible – e.g., Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enrollees – Starks said his attention is primarily on those who rely on housing support.

“If you are having trouble putting food on your table, you should not have to worry about connectivity as well,” Starks said. “If we are helping you to get housed, we should be able to connect that house,” he added.

Environmental benefits of 5G

In addition to economic benefits, 5G-enabled technologies will offer many environmental benefits, Starks argued. He said the FCC should consider how to “ensure folks do more while using less,” particularly in the spheres of spectral and energy efficiency.

“This is going to take a whole-of-nation (approach),” Starks said. “When you talk to your local folks – mayors – state and other federal partners, making sure that they know smart cities (and) smart grid technology…making sure that we’re all unified on thinking about this is exactly where we need to go to in order to drive down the carbon emissions.”

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FCC

FCC Commissioners Tout 5G, Spectrum and Permitting Reform

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks argued that expanding connectivity would enable sustainable, environmentally-friendly technologies.

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Photo of FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks

WASHINGTON, December 15, 2022 – High-level Federal Communications Commission officials addressed the 40th Annual Institute on Telecommunications Policy and Regulation on Thursday, touting 5G technologies, increased spectrum access, and permitting reform as the broadband industry braces for what promises to be an action-packed 2023.

In his keynote, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks argued that expanding connectivity would enable sustainable, environmentally friendly technologies such as 5G-enabled precision agriculture. During a subsequent panel, Joel Taubenblatt, acting chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, predicted robust innovation in 5G-powered technology sectors including transportation, energy and finance.

Starks, Taubenblatt, and Commissioner Brendan Carr each voiced support for robust spectrum availability. Carr reiterated his outspoken opposition to popular social-media app TikTok, and earlier in the day, Commissioner Nathan Simington proposed raising cybersecurity requirements on wireless device manufactures.

The Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act allocated $65 billion to broadband, the largest single investment to date. Policymakers and industry leaders have voiced concern that regulatory mismanagement could blunt the funds’ impact. Testifying before a U.S. Senate subcommittee Tuesday, representatives from trade groups US Telecom and NCTA – The Internet & Television Association warned lawmakers against onerous regulation, especially opaque permitting processes on federal lands.

To ensure the efficient use of unprecedented broadband funding initiatives, federal and state authorities should streamline permitting processes, Carr said. The commissioner told Broadband Breakfast he supports expanding small cell infrastructure reforms, such as approval shot clocks and limitations on unreasonable fees, to the wireline sector.

Carr, in his featured remarks, said regulators should craft policy to avoid overbuilding and prioritize building to the least unserved communities. He once again advocated tech-neutral policies that allow fixed-wireless and satellite broadband to fairly compete with fiber.

Permitting and access barriers at multiple levels of government

Representatives from broadband industry groups detailed potential regulatory barriers to deployment in a webinar held Wednesday.

At the local level, providers must obtain access to utility poles, which can be owned by a range of entities including municipalities and utility companies. State broadband offices could likely coordinate with providers and regulators to ease this process, suggested Teresa Ferguson, senior director of broadband and infrastructure funding at the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative.

At the federal level, Congress has signaled interest in streamlining permitting processes, said Angela Simpson, general counsel and vice president of legal and regulatory affairs at the Competitive Carriers Association, noting the body introduced 28 reform bills this session. Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of senators wrote to the U.S. Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce, urging them to update federal permitting guidelines.

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