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Senate

Gigi Sohn Nomination for FCC Advances Out of Commerce Committee on Party Lines

Nomination of Alvaro Bedoya to the FTC can also advance to the floor following a party-line vote.

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Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2022 –  President Joe Biden’s nominee to the Federal Communications Commission Gigi Sohn saw her nomination advance out of the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday following a vote split along party lines.

Sohn, as well as Biden’s nominee to the Federal Trade Commission Alvaro Bedoya, did not receive the vote of a single Republican on the committee while receiving the support of all Democrats including more moderate senators such as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., allowing for their nominations to advance to a full vote on the Senate floor.

Republican ranking member of the committee Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi stated that on the FCC Sohn would have the appearance of conflicts of interest related to her involvement in past legal battles and cited her past recusals on retransmission consent as problematic.

The controversy is related to Sohn’s involvement with nonprofit streaming service Locast which attempted to make local broadcast network content available to the public for free, sparking copyright lawsuits.

Wicker stated that Bedoya was too divisive and not unifying enough to serve on the FTC, a trend of partisanship that he says is new to the agency.

Strong Democratic support for both nominees makes their confirmations in the Senate seem quite plausible. Should all Republicans vote against the nominations, the approval of all Democratic senators will be required in the deadlocked Senate so that the vice president may break vote ties in the nominees’ favors.

Both the FCC and FTC remain split along party lines, and the confirmations of Sohn and Bedoya would give Democrats the upper hand at the agencies.

The nominations’ advancements out of committee earned praise from telecom industry groups such as think tank New America, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, and intellectual property nonprofit Public Knowledge – the organization Sohn formerly headed.

Reporter T.J. York received his degree in political science from the University of Southern California. He has experience working for elected officials and in campaign research. He is interested in the effects of politics in the tech sector.

Digital Inclusion

CES 2023: Congressional Oversight, Digital Equity Priorities for New Mexico Senator

Sen. Lujan once again voiced concern that the FCC’s national broadband map contains major inaccuracies.

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Photo of Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., in February 2018 by Keith Mellnick used with permission

LAS VEGAS, January 6, 2023 – Sen. Ben Ray Lujan on Friday endorsed “oversight at every level” of executive agencies’ broadband policies and decried service providers that perpetuate digital inequities.

Lujan appeared before an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to preview the tech-policy priorities of the 118th Congress.

Among Washington legislators, Senators had CES 2023 to themselves: Representatives from the House of Representatives were stuck in Washington participating on Friday in the 12th, 13th and 14th votes for House Speaker.

Congress allocated $65 billion to broadband projects in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the bulk of which, housed in the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, is yet to be disbursed. The IIJA funds are primarily for infrastructure, but billions are also available for digital equity and affordability projects.

Several federal legislators, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have called for close supervision of Washington’s multitude of broadband-related programs. At CES on Friday, Warner argued that previous tranches of broadband funding have been poorly administered, and Lujan once again voiced concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map, whose data will be used to allocate BEAD funds, contains major inaccuracies.

Affordable, high-speed broadband is now a necessity, stated Warner. Lujan argued that policy must crafted to ensure all communities have access to connectivity.

“The [Federal Communications Commission] is working on some of the digital equity definitions right now…. I don’t want to see definitions that create loopholes that people can hide behind to not connect communities,” the New Mexico senator said, emphasizing the importance of “the digital literacy to be able take advantage of what this new connection means, so that people can take advantage of what I saw today [at CES].”

At a Senate hearing in December, Lujan grilled executives from industry trade associations over allegations of digital discrimination.

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Infrastructure

Regulatory Barriers Could Hinder Broadband Deployment, Senate Hearing Panelists Say

Panelists sought streamlined permitting processes on federal lands and in local communities, and reasonably priced pole access.

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Screenshot of Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association

WASHINGTON, December 13, 2022 – Onerous permitting regimes and other regulatory barriers could significantly hamper broadband deployment projects, executives from leading trade groups told the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband on Tuesday.

Preparing to monitor the administrative state’s distribution of the largest American broadband investment to date, the subcommittee’s members asked the witness panel how government can facilitate the effective deployment of funds. The largest slice is the $42.5 Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, advocated streamlining permitting processes on federal lands and in local communities as well as ensuring reasonably priced pole access for broadband providers. Powell argued that entities exempt from federal pole-attachment rate regulations – which include cooperatives and municipalities – are incentivized to raise prices to ward off potential competitors in the broadband market.

Often, on federal lands, multiple agencies will claim the permitting authority, Powell said. Federal permitting fees are often exorbitant, he continued, and navigating these processes can “add years and years to a (company’s) commitment to build.

“These kinds of programs always have a tendency to attract layered-on regulatory requirements that are tangential to the mission of the program,” Powell said. “The consequence of that is it creates more complexity, additional burden, and raises the cost of an already fragile cost model.”

Congress should make broadband grants non-taxable, said Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of US Telecom. The Broadband Grant Tax Treatment Act would do so for Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and American Rescue Plan Act grants. According to some on Capitol Hill, Congress may pass the bill by year’s end.

Powell and Spalter argued that poor communication between the myriad agencies that oversee federal broadband initiatives obscures which eligible areas have already received federal funding – to the detriment of industry players. “One of the challenges for regulators is to ruthlessly attempt to harmonize criteria…across these programs and make sure all take cognizance of the other[s] as they make their decisions,” Powell said.

Spalter suggested a certification process through which agencies would be required to confirm that new grants are not issued to already-funded locations. Panelists and senators voiced concerns about redundantly allocated federal funds at several points in the hearing.

Lujan on Build America, Buy America and workforce issues

The NTIA’s guidelines for the BEAD program mandate compliance with the Build America, Buy America Act, which favors domestic manufacturing and, according to many experts, raises prices on goods necessary for broadband deployment. In response to economic pressures, the NTIA proposed waiving this requirement for the Middle Mile grant program, and many have urged the agency to institute a waiver for the BEAD program.

“We should always strive to encourage more manufacturing here in the United States with both onshoring and near-shoring,” subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., told Broadband Breakfast after the hearing. “Democratic and Republican members have pushed for and have fought for the inclusion of equipment made in America,” he added.

Some have also criticized the NTIA’s worker-related policies, which, they say, will artificially drive up the cost of labor and network deployments. “The rules that are being applied by NTIA reflect the importance of having people…work in a way that they’re able to take care of themselves as well,” Lujan said. He further called on Congress to address potential workforce shortages – a concern of many industry players.

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Senate

National 6G Strategy Bill Passes Senate Commerce Committee

The Next Generation Telecommunications Act received bipartisan support.

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Photo of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto by Senate Democrats, via Wikimedia

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2022 – Legislation that would create a council to advise Congress on 6G and other wireless technologies and how they may power smart cities on Tuesday passed the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation committee with bipartisan support.

In addition to advising Congress on the state of technology in the telecommunications industry, the council would also develop a comprehensive, national telecom strategy, which will address topics related to technology, workforce demands and security.

The bill, Next Generation Telecommunications Act, S.3014,was introduced by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who said in a press release that the legislation is a key part of her state’s goal of being “on the cutting edge of new technologies.

“We’ve got to promote American competitiveness in these kind of cutting-edge technologies that we’re building in Nevada,” Cortze Masto said in a statement on the bill. “That means improving access to quality broadband, ensuring we have the necessary workforce, and putting in safeguards to make sure we protect emerging technologies.”

The council would be comprised of 15 members including the deputy secretary of Commerce, the assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, the undersecretary of the National Institute of Standards, the chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission, and the director of the National Science Foundation.

The council would also feature three members appointed by the majority leader of the Senate, two members appointed by the minority leader of the Senate, three members appointed by the Speaker of the House, and two members appointed by the minority leader of the House.

The bill has received notable bipartisan support: it is co-sponsored by two Republicans and two additional Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ben Luján, D-N.M.

“As China and other countries seek to exploit communications networks for surveillance and intellectual property theft, the U.S. needs a cohesive strategy for the safe deployment of next-generation wireless technologies,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

South Dakota senator and Senate Republican minority whip John Thune also came out in support of the bill. “This bill would allow the United States to continue competing on the global stage, and it would help prepare the United States to lead the way in deploying next-generation technology, including 6G. I’ll continue to work on bipartisan solutions that will increase innovation and bolster the private sector’s ability to compete in this emerging space.”

The bill must now get through a general vote in the Senate, at which point it will need to also pass the House.

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