Recap of FCC Oversight Hearing

All five Federal Communications Commissioners testified at a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing. Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) said the hearing was an opportunity for Commissioners to discuss what more can be done to expand broadband access and digital opportunity for all Americans. He pointed to implementation of the Broadband DATA Act, saying "it is imperative that the FCC develop accurate broadband maps with more precise data about where broadband is available and where it is not – and at what speeds." Chairman Wicker recently authored the Accelerating Broadband Connectivity Act which would incentivize providers to expedite broadband build-out plans without undermining or delaying the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called on Congress to act to keep all Americans connected during the pandemic. He countered critics who have suggested the FCC delay the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction until the commission has a better understanding of where broadband has yet to be deployed, saying "that would be a mistake; the areas the Commission is targeting in the Phase I auction are areas where the Commission’s current data show there is currently no service." He said, "Digital opportunity delayed is digital opportunity denied." Pai also asked again that Congress provide the $65 million the FCC needs to implement the Broadband DATA Act and create granular broadband deployment maps for both fixed and mobile providers.

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly answered calls to expedite the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction (now scheduled for Octo 2020). "Expediting the auction shouldn’t be conflated with expediting the buildout of broadband," O'Rielly said. He backed Chairman Wicker's proposal to provide financial incentives to auction winners to accelerate their broadband deployment obligations, through funding appropriated by Congress. And O'Rielly offered three principles for Congress to consider if it addresses broadband deployment: 1) safeguard against wasteful, subsidized overbuilding, 2) technology neutrality, and 3) consider the FCC as the primary means to allocate new funding.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said policymakers must act to address problems laid bare by the pandemic. First, she said, we need a clear plan for broadband for all. Second, we need a clear plan to fix the Homework Gap. Third, we need a clear plan to keep all Americans connected. Fourth, we need a clear plan for a secure 5G future. Fifth, we need a clear plan to sustain local media and stand up for the First Amendment. Finally, we need a clear plan to learn from the crisis before us.

During the pandemic, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks has called for a “connectivity stimulus”: "I called on Internet Service Providers to introduce or expand their low-income broadband programs and eliminate their data caps. In times of emergency, no American should go without a connection because of cost. I called for expansion of the Commission’s Lifeline program and for temporary waivers to put underutilized spectrum to work." Starks said the FCC's Lifeline program remains dramatically underutilized, and its benefits do not meet the needs of low-income consumers in this era of social distancing. The FCC, Starks said, must coordinate with agencies that administer services like SNAP or Medicaid that determine eligibility for Lifeline to ensure low-income communities learn about this critical program. Americans cannot afford for the government to work in silos. He said policymakers should also increase Lifeline’s voice and data offerings to meet the connectivity needs of low-income subscribers during this public health crisis.

A frequent topic for discussion during the hearing was President Donald Trump's Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship and the role the FCC will play in interpreting section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Chairman Wicker said that the Commerce Committee would be looking into edge provider's Sec. 230 exemption from civil liability for how they treat third party content on their sites. Chairman Wicker said Sec. 230 was intended to preserve a vibrant and competitive online marketplace" but said that he was "deeply troubled by recent reports that suggest some online platforms are disproportionately censoring conservative voices or imposing an unfair bias through their policies or terms of service." 

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the former chairman of the Commerce Committee and current chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, signaled that he and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) are introducing a bill aimed at Sec. 230. The Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act, he said, will provide more accountability and transparency about how large tech platforms treat their content and make their content moderation decisions. 

When the National Telecommunications and Information Administration requests that the FCC open a rulemaking, Chairman Pai said he will follow the facts and the law. He would not say whether he thought the Sec. 230 exemption from civil liability for third-party postings needed reforming. His fellow commissioners were not similarly reticent. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said that if the FCC could simply provide for more transparency in terms of how speech was being blocked or throttled by edge providers it would "transform" the ability to address what he said was the problem of censorship of conservative speech.

Recap of FCC Oversight Hearing Oversight of the Federal Communications Commission (Senate Commerce Committee) Wicker: Senate Commerce Will Review Sec. 230 (Multichannel News) Sens. Thune, Schatz Teaming on Sec. 230 Transparency Bill (Multichannel News) Pai Tells Senate He Won't Prejudge Sec. 230 Petition (Multichannel News)