Elections Matter: Who’s Who in Telecommunications Policy in the 116th Congress

Benton Foundation

Friday, January 18, 2019

Weekly Digest

Elections Matter: Who’s Who in Telecommunications Policy in the 116th Congress


 You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of January 14-18, 2019

Robbie McBeath

The 116th Congress is underway. In the background of a partial government shutdown, lawmakers are getting their committee assignments. At Benton, we keep a close eye on two key Congressional panels because of their jurisdiction over many telecommunications issues and oversight of the Federal Communications Commission: 1) the House Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee, and 2) the Senate Commerce Committee. Below we take a look at some key telecom policymakers in the 116th Congress. 

Rep. Doyle (D-PA) to Chair House Communications Subcommittee

On January 15, House Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) announced the chairs and full Democratic rosters for the committee’s six subcommittees. Leading the Communications Subcommittee will be Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA).

Chairman Doyle is a veteran of the Communications Subcommittee and he championed two key bills:  

  1. the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-371), which substantially increased the number of low-power FM radio licenses the FCC could issue, significantly increasing the diversity of voices and views available on the FM radio dial. 
  2. the Do Not Call Improvement Act of 2007 (Public Law 110-187), which eliminated the need for consumers to sign up for the federal Do Not Call Registry every 5 years.

“After eight years serving in the minority, I’m excited for the opportunity to set the Committee’s agenda on these issues – rather than just playing defense,” Chairman Doyle said this week. “I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues to promote policies that benefit consumers, small businesses, and innovators, as well as to conduct effective oversight of the Trump Administration.”

Chairman Doyle said his agenda includes protecting net neutrality, investing in broadband infrastructure, and "providing Americans with the privacy and data security protections." 

Recently, Chairman Doyle gave an early look at how the new subcommittee majority may approach net neutrality legislation in the new Congress. "One of the things our committee can do and one of the things we’re going to be taking a look [at] is introducing a net neutrality bill in the House of Representatives and try to do it in such a way that it sort of concurs with what the [52] senators voted for so that we have a chance to get this through in the Senate,” he said.

Rep. Doyle has been a frequent advocate for expanding broadband into rural areas. But he has sparred with the GOP over how to pay for it. In January 2018, when President Donald Trump was making statements aimed at expanding broadband access, then House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said she expected to introduce several pieces of legislation aimed at removing barriers to broadband expansion into rural areas. 

But Rep. Doyle was critical of the GOP’s efforts, claiming that they did not do enough to bring in new funding, and claiming the efforts failed to address the main obstacle to rural broadband expansion: cost. “It would require tens of billions of dollars to bring broadband to unserved and underserved parts of the country,” he said. “The private sector hasn’t done it because they know they wouldn’t make a profit on it.” Any rural broadband initiative without substantial new funding “would be nothing more than window dressing.”

Rep. Doyle also joined Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in drafting a letter to then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler urging it to use its authority to promote community broadband and joined as co-sponsor to Rep. Anna Eshoo’s (D-CA) Community Broadband Act (H.R. 4814). 

When it comes to spectrum and 5G, Rep. Doyle released a discussion draft of legislation intended to free up spectrum and accelerate the deployment of 5G wireless technologies. “Getting additional spectrum on the market will help fuel the growth of technologies that are projected to expand dramatically in the next few years, such as the Internet of Things, Smart Cities, and 5G wireless broadband,” he said. “This spectrum is also key to connecting rural America to the rest of the world – as well as creating faster, cheaper options for underserved areas and populations. I hope to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, as well as all of the stakeholders, to advance the deployment of broadband in our country - a goal we all share.” Rep. Doyle joined Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) in introducing the AIRWAVES Act in February 2018.  

As part of the House minority, Rep. Doyle was also a leader in efforts to protect consumer privacy. If you recall, in October 2016, the FCC adopted rules to protect the privacy of broadband consumers. The House ultimately overturned the rules with a 215 to 205 GOP-led vote passing S.J. Res 34. But Rep. Doyle was a vocal opponent of the resolution. “Broadband providers see literally everything you do online. Without [the FCC’s rules], these companies don’t have to ask before selling all that information, and they don’t have to take 'reasonable measures' to protect that information when they collect it,” he said

Chairman Doyle said it would be a priority for him in the 116th Congress to examine the collection and use of digital data that companies harvest through apps, social media platforms, geographic positioning devices, biotechnology services (think 23andMe), and wearable technology. 

“Right now Fitbit is collecting information on whether you exercise or don’t exercise. The question is who owns the data, and do they have the right to [share] that data,” he said in a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

Below are the Democrats joining Doyle on the subcommittee and a brief  look at their telecommunication policy priorities:

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA)

In addition to their telecom priorities noted above, all the subcommittee members signed onto Rep. Doyle's Congresssional Review Act resolution that would have overturned the FCC's 2017 decision to rescind net neutrality rules -- all except Reps. Tom O'Halleran (D-AZ) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC). 

Rep. Latta (R-OH) Leads Republican Minority

House Commerce Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) announced the Republican leaders on the subcommittees for the 116th Congress. As expected, Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) has been named Ranking Member of the Communications Subcommittee. 

Ranking Member Latta said:

“The way we communicate and use technology plays a significant role in our daily lives. In this capacity, I’ll be able to advocate for policies that will help consumers, grow our economy, and spur innovation. One area I’ve focused on in Congress has been increasing access to high-speed broadband and closing the 'digital divide' – an important issue to the people I represent in Northwest and West Central Ohio. In addition, the rollout of 5G promises to revolutionize our communications infrastructure, and this subcommittee will play a critical role in developing the necessary policies to ensure the United States maintains its place as a leader of this cutting-edge technology. I look forward to working with my colleagues on these issues and more during the 116 Congress.”

Rep. Latta has been a leader on a few particular issues that have come before the House Communications Subcommittee. 

Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH)

Rep. Latta and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) launched an Internet of Things (IoT) Working Group in 2016. Last November, the House passed Rep. Latta’s SMART IoT Act (H.R. 6032), which directs the Secretary of Commerce to conduct a study on the state of the internet-connected device industry. 

Last October, Rep. Latta, in an effort to provide a much-needed forum for Members of Congress and staff to learn about Wi-Fi-related issues affecting their constituents, launched the Wi-Fi Caucus with Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA). 

Rep. Latta also co-chairs the Rural Broadband Caucus. He introduced the House version of the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act (H.R. 4881), which would require the FCC to create a task force in cooperation with with the Department of Agriculture to evaluate the best way to promote broadband for precision agriculture -- self-driving tractors, IoT devices, drones for crop assessment, etc.

At a hearing in July 2018, Rep. Latta said, “As a Co-Chair of the Rural Broadband Caucus and Co-Chair of the Rural Telecommunications Working Group, we believe that it’s absolutely important that we get broadband out to the rural areas of our country. It’s not only on the ag side, but from the testimony we’ve heard from the other witnesses, you can’t operate a business, you can’t operate a hospital, if you don’t have that technology. It’s absolutely important that we have that.” 

Rep. Latta’s views on net neutrality follow other high-ranking Republicans. After Chairman Pai’s Dec 2017 vote to repeal net neutrality protections, Rep. Latta said:

“I firmly believe in and support net neutrality principles such as no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization that are important elements of a free and open Internet. At the same time, it is not necessary to use Depression-era regulations and a heavy-handed government approach to achieve them. Today’s decision by the FCC will simply restore the light-touch rules that governed the Internet for decades and helped usher in massive investment and innovation in the technology sector. It’s now important that Congress pursue legislation that will provide certainty on this issue and ensure a dynamic Internet for years to come.”

In general, Rep. Latta also seems aligned with Chairman Pai’s deregulatory agenda, at least when it comes to smaller businesses. In September 2017, Rep. Latta and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) introduced the Small Entity Regulatory Relief Opportunity (SERRO) Act (H.R. 3787) to provide regulatory relief for small businesses and entities under FCC rules. “In the telecommunications sector, smaller entities often do not require the same level of regulatory oversight as large entities — as both Congress and the FCC have recognized. While the FCC has provided regulatory relief  on a case-by-case basis, small businesses and their customers would benefit from greater certainty, fewer costs, and more administrative efficiency that this legislation would provide,” Rep. Latta said. 

Below are the Republicans joining Latta on the subcommittee and a brief look at their telecommunication policy priorities:

Subcommittee Priorities

As mentioned, Chairman Doyle said his agenda includes protecting net neutrality, investing in broadband infrastructure, and "providing Americans with the privacy and data security protections."

Priorities: net neutrality, broadband infrastructure, privacy protection, and FCC oversight. 

Besides those issues, undeniably, one of the main priorities of the new Democratic-controlled House Commerce Committee will be to conduct more FCC oversight hearings -- which could possibly slow the deregulatory agenda of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Using committee gavels to disrupt regulators of opposing parties is not a new tactic.

“The entire goal is to keep you from your doing work,” said Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn, who served as a senior adviser to Obama-era FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “The Republicans did that so effectively against Wheeler,” she said. “Everybody and their mother took a shot at Tom Wheeler. And if Democrats are smart, they’ll do the same thing.”

Both Chairman Pallone and Chairman Doyle have expressed their intent to hold more oversight hearings. Chairman Pallone said it’s “important that the committee get back to conducting real oversight of the FCC, and that means regular oversight hearings with all commissioners.” Chairman Doyle agreed. “First of all, we want to see the FCC in front of us more, and then there’s a whole range of issues that obviously we’re going to be interested in discussing.”

Senate Commerce Committee

Republicans increase their majority in the Senate in the 116th Congress, but there will still be changes in committee leadership. Republican Conference rules on chairmanship term limits mean that Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) can no longer lead the panel as he has for the past six years. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) will be the next Senate Commerce Committee Chairman, while Sen. Thune will lead the Communications Subcommittee, a position Wicker held in the 115th Congress. 

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS)

Beginning in 1994, Wicker represented Mississippi’s First Congressional District in the House of Representatives, where he was elected seven times. He has represented the state in the Senate since December 2007, when he was appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS) to fill the seat following the resignation of Trent Lott. 

Sen. Wicker has focused on rural broadband and, in recent years, hammered the FCC for inaccurate broadband mapping data. “Data is critical to delivering broadband to rural communities that lack service,” said Sen. Wicker. 

In May 2018, Sen. Wicker joined Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) to introduce the Mobile Accuracy and Precision (MAP) Broadband Act (S. 2955). The bill would “help improve the accuracy of the FCC  mobile broadband coverage map and ensure that federal resources are targeted to unserved communities that do not have access to reliable mobile broadband service.”

“The FCC’s seriously-flawed mobile coverage map threatens to exclude many rural communities from much-needed wireless broadband support,” Sen. Wicker said. “The FCC should address Americans’ concerns and fix this inaccurate map. We need to ensure that the 23 million rural Americans who currently lack broadband service will be first in line to receive support through the Mobility Fund program.”

In October 2017, Sen. Wicker joined Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) in introducing the “Streamlining Permitting to Enable Efficient Deployment (SPEED) of Broadband Infrastructure Act” (S. 1988). The measure would accelerate the deployment of new broadband infrastructure to both rural and urban areas by streamlining the permitting process for telecommunications equipment that is installed in locations that have already been subjected to historical or environmental reviews. 

“This sensible legislation would help fast-track the deployment of next-generation broadband technologies by utilizing existing public right of ways and exempting communications providers from duplicative reviews,” Sen. Wicker said. “New advances in telehealth, online education, precision agriculture, and other internet applications demand faster, better broadband connections. It is time for the federal government to recognize the realities of a modern digital economy and accommodate the needs of American consumers.”

The work of the 116th Congress has just begun. Be sure to keep up along the way by subscribing to our Daily Digest on communications policy, Headlines.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Events Calendar for January 21-25, 2019

Jan 22 -- Can Auctioning the 2.5 GHz EBS Spectrum Band Help Close the Homework Gap?, Internet Innovation Alliance

Jan 23 -- Death by a Thousand Cuts: The FCC’s Dangerous Proposal to Kill the Lifeline Program and Hurt Low-Income Americans, New America

Jan 23 -- The Future of Connectivity: Where is Broadband Investment Headed?, Technology Policy Institute

Jan 23 -- How Streaming is Changing Music, Slate, New America, and Arizona State University

Jan 23 -- Rebuilding a Smarter City: Lessons from Houston, New America

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Foundation
727 Chicago Avenue
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headlines AT benton DOT org

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By Robbie McBeath.