Kevin Taglang

Recap: FCC Oversight Hearing Focuses on Lifeline Program

The House Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing on July 12 – just for fun. The staff for the subcommittee’s majority framed the hearing as an examination of both the FCC’s “policy decisions and the process by which it reaches them under Chairman [Tom] Wheeler’s leadership.” The staff teed up four issues in particular: privacy and broadband providers, set-top TV boxes, media ownership rules, and management of the Lifeline program. All five FCC commissioners testified.

In his written testimony, FCC Chairman Wheeler updated the subcommittee on the FCC’s progress regarding Open Internet rules recently upheld in court, the world’s first incentive auction aimed at convincing television broadcasters to relinquish spectrum licenses, efforts to accelerate the development and deployment of 5G wireless technology, a proposal to encourage competition in the Business Data Services (also known at Special Access) marketplace, the FCC’s Lifeline Modernization order, a proceeding on how to ensure consumers have the tools they need to make informed choices about how and whether their data is used and shared by their broadband providers, set-top boxes, and the need to improve the 911 system.

Press reports of the hearing focus on the sparring over the Lifeline program which makes telephone service more affordable for low-income households. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has expressed concerns that households may be receiving extra or unneeded subsidies, which are against the program's rules. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), the Ranking Member of the subcommittee, ripped into Commissioner Pai at the hearing, pressing him on whether he had actually found evidence of fraud and if his investigation into the program had considered that some addresses include more than one household, for example homeless shelters or veterans' homes, where residents might be entitled to multiple subsidies. “Because they exist in my congressional district, in everyone’s congressional district,” she said. “And if you’re using those multi-household addresses to allege that there’s fraud, then, you know what, you’ve got to be really careful with this.” Chairman Wheeler came armed with stats showing that more than two million people getting lifeline subsidies were in those multiple-dwelling units.

“I agree completely congresswoman,” Commissioner Pai responded. “That’s why I said we don’t know, it’s potentially fraudulent and we need to investigate given the magnitude of that number.” “So you don’t know, you’re just saying it might be?” Rep Eshoo shot back. She then repeatedly asked Pai whether he had found concrete evidence of fraud in the Lifeline program. “No, just answer me, yes for no,” she said, eventually. “Have you uncovered any fraud so far?” “To date, I have not reached that conclusion,” Pai replied.

Rep Frank Pallone (D-NJ) released a report concluding that recent Republican allegations of $500 million of waste, fraud, and abuse in the Lifeline program are based on faulty assumptions and bad data. The research found that the Republican claims relied solely on a faulty assumption that all Lifeline beneficiaries living in multi-household addresses — including veteran group homes, nursing homes, and homeless shelters — received their phones due to fraud. The investigation has uncovered no evidence to support this assumption, and found that 43 percent of the multiple-household filings were submitted out of an abundance of caution for consumers whose information had already been verified.

Public Interest Advocates Discuss IP Transition with FCC

Eleven public interest advocates (including the Benton Foundation) filed a letter on July 7, 2016, to express concern with a draft order that will streamline the framework for Federal Communications Commission evaluation of requests to discontinue legacy voice service. The groups urged the FCC to include affordability in the criteria to evaluate a discontinuance application and require consumer education in languages other than English and in a manner that can be used by people with disabilities. The FCC must ensure that discontinuance of service does not result in the loss of Lifeline discounts to low-income households, including both voice and the recently adopted Broadband Internet Access Service Lifeline program. The availability of Lifeline discounts should be included in the adequate replacement criteria. The FCC must ensure that discontinuance of service does not leave any consumers without access to the Internet at a reasonably comparable price. The ability to connect to the Internet at a reasonably comparable price should be included in the adequate replacement criteria.

Public Knowledge and the Communication Workers of America met with Commissioner O’Reilly’s Legal Advisor on July 5, 2016, to express support for FCC action to clarify the process and criteria the FCC will use to evaluate a streamlined discontinuance request from a legacy voice TDM provider. They said, however, the FCC should require carriers to certify there is a broadband provider in the service area prior to discontinuing service and ensure that there is an adequate public comment period for a 214(a) discontinuance. They also met with Legal Advisors to Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel to discuss the same issues.

#NetNeutrality News Never Sleeps (Even in August)

August in Washington (DC) is hot and muggy. But when the future of the Internet is at stake, there’s no break in the news.

The Federal Communications Commission’s current Open Internet proceeding has generated over 1.1 million comments from the public. The great public interest in the issue moved the FCC to release the comments in a series of six XML files, totaling over 1.4 GB of data -- approximately two and half times the amount of plain-text data embodied in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

From President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Reid backing network neutrality; Title II and Internet throttling by Verizon and other carriers; to Netflix’s paid peering deals, the debate over what’s reasonable network management, how net neutrality rules will evolve, and regulatory reclassification will continue for some time to come.

What’s in the E-rate Order? A Request for More Input and Data

Although the Federal Communications Commission adopted many changes to the E-rate program on July 11, 2014, the FCC also launched a new proceeding -- a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking -- seeking public comment on additional issues.

Specifically, the FCC seeks input on the future funding needs of the E-rate program; discrete issues that may further simplify the administration of the E-rate program; promoting cost-effective purchasing through multi-year contracts and consortium purchasing; and how best to calculate the amount of funding eligible libraries need in order to purchase Wi-Fi networks and other internal connections.

Can Online Public Files Combat the Flood of Money in Elections?

[Commentary] This week the New York Times reported on an explosion of spending on political advertising on television. The explosion is “accelerating the rise of moneyed interests and wresting control from the candidates’ own efforts to reach voters,” Ashley Parker reported.

On July 31, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation (represented by the Institute for Public Representation of Georgetown University Law Center) called on the Federal Communications Commission to extend to cable and satellite systems the requirement that their political files be posted on the FCC’s online database.

What’s in the E-rate Order? A Streamlined Process

The third major goal adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in the latest E-rate reform proceeding is to make the E-rate application process (and other E-rate processes) fast, simple and efficient.

The FCC adopted a number of programmatic changes, including simplifying the application process by providing a process for expediting the filing and review of applications involving multi-year contracts; eliminating technology plans for internal connections; simplifying and clarifying applicants’ discount rate calculations; simplifying the invoicing and disbursement process; and requiring all Universal Service Fund (USF) requests for review to be filed initially with the E-rate administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).

The FCC also aims to reduce the administrative burden on applicants by processing and managing applications more efficiently, modernizing its E-rate information technology (IT) systems, timely publishing all non-confidential E-rate data in an open and standardized format, and communicating more clearly with E-rate applicants and service providers.

What’s in the E-rate Order? Maximizing E-rate Dollars

[Commentary] Maximizing the benefit of each dollar spent on telecommunications services for schools and libraries and minimizing the contribution burden on consumers and businesses is a major goal adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in its July 2014 E-rate order. The FCC is aiming to drive down costs for the services and equipment needed to deliver high-speed broadband connectivity to and within schools and libraries. The FCC changed E-rate rules to increase pricing transparency, encourage consortium purchasing and amend its lowest corresponding price (LCP) rule to clarify that potential service providers must offer eligible schools, libraries and consortia the LCP.

What's in the E-rate Order? Affordable High-Speed Broadband To and Within Schools and Libraries

In this the first of a series of articles looking at the order, we examine the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to bring Internet connectivity both to the building and to devices within schools and libraries.

Cities Seek FCC Help to Expand Broadband

[Commentary] Chattanooga (TN) and Wilson (NC) simultaneously petitioned the FCC to pre-empt laws in their states that ban the cities from expanding their high-speed Internet networks. The petitions are a move to lift all statewide bans on municipal broadband networks. More than 130 cities operate their own Internet networks, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance while some 21 states restrict such networks.

The state laws restricting municipal broadband have been backed, and sometimes written, by telecommunications companies led by AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon Communications and Comcast. They argue it is unfair for them to compete with government, which doesn’t have to make a profit or pay taxes.

Privacy, Civil Liberties and the NSA

[Commentary] On July 2, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board released a detailed analysis of U.S. surveillance programs. The headline-grabbing conclusion of the research is that a set of National Security Agency programs that collect vast amounts of Internet communications from U.S. companies has proved to be an effective intelligence tool, but that some aspects bordered on unconstitutionality. The board said that the NSA programs need better safeguards for protecting Americans' communications scooped up in the process. One of the goals of the board in writing the report has been to increase transparency about U.S. surveillance. In addition to this effort to explain the program, the board has set forth a series of policy recommendations designed to ensure that the program appropriately balances national security concerns with privacy and civil liberties. As you pack up for July 4 weekend, we thought we’d take a closer look at what the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is and what it found out about the NSA.