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Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Tackles Question of Public Versus Private Auction of C-Band Spectrum

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Photo of Sen. Kennedy courtesy the senator's office

WASHINGTON, October 17, 2019 – A Senate Appropriations subcommittee focused questions at a Thursday hearing on the Federal Communication Commission’s spectrum auctions on the dynamics of a public versus private auction of the C-Band.

Financial Services Subcommittee Chairman John Kennedy, R-La., expressed his preference for a public auction. In particular, he argued that foreign companies shouldn’t reap the benefits of American innovation.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was the lead witness, and he advocated for a “market-based approach” is the best way to make spectrum more available for 5G.

Mid-band spectrum – which includes the C-Band primarily under discussion — combine good coverage with good capacity, Pai said. That’s one reason why the agency is planning to use dynamic spectrum sharing within the C-Band, which will operate at between 3.7 GigaHertz (GHz) and 4.2 GHz.

Pai explained that spectrum sharing allows federal and non-federal users to coexist within the same band, with each group possessing protection from harmful interference.

Because existing spectrum licenses cover barely half of the country, Pai said, the FCC can and should do more to allow broadband wireless service in more locations.

The biggest concern about 5G, said Kennedy, is that it may this next generation of wireless technology might not be widely deployed in suburban and rural communities. That’s why the Louisiana senator said that the FCC needed to allocate C-Band spectrum in such a way that rural Americans weren’t left behind, he said.

Another concern about the auction, said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., is how to ensure liability if licensed spectrum service is interrupted by unlicensed users. He said that public auction would help hold these parties accountable.

Also testifying was Tom Schatz, president at Citizens Against Government Waste, and David Williams, President at Taxpayers Protection Alliance. They argued that a public auction is the most profitable and equitable option for American taxpayers.

Williams criticized the intentions of the C-Band Alliance, calling it a “taxpayer rip-off.” He said its members have been evasive with the contents of their proposal and how much money will be returned to the U.S. Treasury.

There’s no way of knowing who’s going to get the spectrum in a private auction, Williams said. The FCC will be involved regardless of what type of auction it is, so it makes more sense to host an auction that will be more beneficial to taxpayers, he said.

An auction with strong FCC oversight would make sure spectrum is properly allocated, added Schatz. The CBA, on the other hand, has only mentioned their intents to sell the spectrum.

With the normal FCC auction process, he said, proceeds would go to taxpayers and incumbent users of the spectrum would be protected. A private sale conducted by a small group of satellite companies would raise questions about their ability to sell something that they do not own.

Because airwaves are a public resource, Schatz added, it’s the federal government’s responsibility to exercise appropriate oversight of its allocation. A public auction offers both transparency and equal opportunity, he said.

Digital Inclusion

Senators Reintroduce Bipartisan Digital Equity Act

Sen. Murray re-introduces bi-partisan that would provide grants to states pushing for digital equity.

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Patty Murray, D-Washington

June 14, 2021– Three Senators have introduced legislation that would provide grants to states that create digital equity plans.

The proposed legislation, reintroduced on Thursday by Patty Murray, D-Washington, Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Angus King, I-Maine, would set-aside $60 million to establish a State Digital Equity Capacity Grant within the Department of Commerce that would “promote the achievement of digital equity, support digital inclusion activities, and build capacity for efforts by States relating to the adoption of broadband by residents of those States.”

The funds from the Digital Equity Act in the Senate would be made available to all states, foundations, corporations, institutions, or agencies. The bill was first introduced by Murray in 2019.

Each state will receive a different grant amount depending on a formula that includes population and access to broadband across the state, to be spent within 5 years of receipt.

In addition to funding for states, the bill creates a  $125-million Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program. This program is also for state agencies and institutions but is more specifically geared toward those that are responsible for “adult education and literacy activities.”

Infrastructure portion

A final pillar of the bill is to create more infrastructure and resources for future development of policies that will continue to promote a bridging of the digital divide.

During a press conference on the bill, Murray told the Broadband Breakfast that she believes the bill will be successful because it gives states and local communities the ability to decide what their needs are. “We cannot dictate that in D.C.,” she remarked.

When asked why the bill will create more permanent solutions, she stated that it, “Provides for the diversity of needs that are going to continue to be out there.”

The senators co-sponsoring the bill said they are confident it will make its way into any infrastructure legislation passed by Congress.

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Infrastructure

Senate Committee Hears High Symmetrical Internet Speeds, Up-To-Date Technologies For Future Of Rural America

NTCA’s Shirley Bloomfield on driving improvements for rural broadband.

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Shirley Bloomfield

May 19, 2021– The head of the NTCA — Rural Broadband Association told a Senate Finance Committee that there are a number of improvements that can be made to broadband services and infrastructure for rural Americans, including higher symmetrical internet speeds, up-to-date network technologies, and better coordination of government funding to avoid overbuilding.

Shirley Bloomfield provided six different types of actions at Tuesday’s hearing that the government should take to improve broadband coverage in rural markets.

Bloomfield’s first suggestion was to build networks to last. She argued that building networks that provide insufficient speeds or utilize technology that is already outdated will not be sufficient to address the broadband needs of the future generation. During her testimony, Bloomfield specifically voiced support for 100 Mbps symmetrical service.

“We have a once in a generation opportunity—on the investment side—to do this right—to aim higher and to do better,” she said.

Her second suggestion was to take steps to limit overbuilding. To do this, she suggested that state and local governments coordinate with existing programs that provide mapping and funding for broadband projects. She clarified during her testimony that those without broadband service need to be prioritized before those with insufficient broadband service. She argued that the best way to do this would be ensuring that there is coordination with federal and state regulatory bodies with access to mapping data.

Bloomfield’s third suggestion was that network maintenance must be prioritized, and that modern networks will only stay modern and efficient if they are kept working and up to date.

Bloomfield also recommended clearer standards for broadband providers and that un(der)served rural communities should not be treated as “test labs” for new technologies. She stated that technologies should not be deployed until they have been sufficiently tested and established as viable strategies to serve communities in need of broadband. This includes not just the current needs of the communities in question, but also the projected needs of future generations.

Her sixth recommendation was to encourage consumers to look for local ISPs to provide broadband service. She noted that these smaller, local ISPs have cultivated relationships with the communities they serve, and those who work for the ISP often live among those they serve. She stated that it is this intimate connection that has allowed them to navigate the unique issues that these rural communities face.

Finally, Bloomfield encouraged the Committee to push for lower barriers to entry for broadband expansion projects, stating that bureaucracy and costs associated with many projects are simply too high. She also stated that a concerted effort must be made to sure-up supply chain issues that are currently applying significant pressure to ISPs and hampering expansion.

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Section 230

President Trump’s FCC Nominee Grilled on Section 230 During Senate Confirmation Hearing

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Photo of Nathan Simington during his Senate confirmation hearing

November 10, 2020 — Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation grilled President Donald Trump’s proposed nominee to the Federal Communications Commission, Nathan Simington, on his stance on the FCC’s jurisdiction to interpret Section 230, during a nominations hearing on Tuesday.

While there were two other nominees for federal agency’s present to testify, members of the Committee directed the majority of their questions to Simington, which he mostly attempted to deflect, saying he needed more internal information to answer.

“During your time working at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, you effectively acted as an arm of the president,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., highlighting Simington’s active involvement in crafting the Commerce Department’s petition to the FCC to force the agency to re-interpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

“Trump’s tweet makes it clear what he expects from you, which I think should deeply trouble us all,” said Blumenthal, referencing the president’s tweet to Committee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, and others, before the hearing, which called for them to act now on Simington’s “important nomination” by confirming him to the FCC as soon as possible.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., during the hearing

Many doubted Simington’s nomination would be confirmed by January, but Tuesday’s hearing introduced a new sense of urgency behind the nomination. The tweets-in-real-time promotion by Trump seemed raise the specter pushing a confirmation – as with the Supreme Court – that, at least in the president’s mind, would bear upon decision-making in the wake of the election.

“The FCC should remain free from political interference,” said Blumenthal, adding that the agency may diminish its independence and become a tool of the outgoing president for the next 70 days.

Simington said he has not had discussions with White House about Section 230

Simington said early on in the questioning session that he supports the FCC’s jurisdiction to clarify Section 230 rulemaking, as proposed by Chairman Ajit Pai in mid-October.

“I do think Section 230 needs to be reformed,” said Simington. He said that he has not had any discussion with the White House on Section 230 legislative proposals.

While Blumenthal demanded that Simington commit to not voting on Section 230 rulemaking, Simington said he believed that such a pledge would be premature to make. However, Simington did promise his first action if nominated would be to talk the issue over with the FCC’s ethics counsel.

Simington promised to work to maintain a “free and open internet” in response to a question from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questioning his views on what Cruz called “censorship” by big tech companies. He maintained that censorship is “primarily not the concern of the FCC.”

During his opening statement, Simington committed to four values he intends to defend, if confirmed: Regulatory stability through vigorous competition, universal connectivity, national security, and public interest.

While Simington said he would fight for universal connectivity and the public good, he refused to commit to extending the FCC’s temporary interpretation of the E-Rate Program, which is currently enabling educational institutions to use federal funds to increase the internet access available to students who have been sent home.

“I’m troubled by your lack of specificity on expanding the E-Rate Program,” said Blumenthal in response.

Withdrawl of Michael O’Rielly’s nomination and background of Simington

Before his nomination, Nathan Simington was a senior adviser at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the president’s policy arm for telecommunications policy.

In addition to his work at NTIA, Simington previously worked at the law firms of Mayer Brown, Kirkland and Ellis, and Chapman and Cutler.

Simington was nominated on September 16 to fill a vacancy after the White House withdrew Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s nomination to serve another term at the FCC.

President Trump withdrew O’Rielly’s nomination on August 3, after the commissioner made comments expressing doubts over proposals that the FCC target social media companies for the way they regulate content.

If confirmed, Simington would fill the seat that will be vacated by O’Rielly, who has been on the commission since 2013. Both are Republicans, but O’Rielly told C-SPAN in July the he held deep reservations over proposals to target social media platforms for the way that they curate their content.

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