Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Headlines Daily Digest
Government & Communications
Stories From Abroad
A Q&A with House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA).
Chairman Doyle says he's not waiting for Republican support before bringing the Save the Internet Act to a vote. He criticized his colleagues on the other side of the aisle for not making a good faith effort to work across party lines to put network neutrality protections in place. He said he'd like to get bipartisan support for the Save the Internet Act, but that even without it his bill, supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), will get a vote in April. When asked about the chances of passing the bill in the Senate, Chairman Doyle said, "I look at it this way: There were 52 votes for this in the Senate when the [Net Neutrality Congressional Review Act] passed (in that chamber). There were some Republicans who voted for the CRA. So we know there is Republican support there. Secondly, I think our job is that we are going to send the strongest bill we can over to the Senate. The Senate doesn't have a long history of just taking House bills and passing them. I'm sure they are going to put it through their process. But our job is to pass the strongest bill we can that protects consumers. We want to start at our goal line and not the 50 yard line."
Discussing Title II in the Save the Internet Act, Chairman Doyle said, "This is a compromise bill. We are taking very little of Title II. This is a bill that puts into statute all the forbearance that [former FCC Chairman] Tom Wheeler did in the 2015 FCC order. The concern always was that a future FCC chairman could reinstate the 27 sections and over 700 regulations that the previous FCC forebore. That included the two big ones that the telcos were concerned about: rate regulation and unbundling. But this legislation puts all the sections and regulations that were forborne into statute so that no new FCC chairman can undo it. It would take an act of Congress for someone to do rate regulation or network unbundling. This was a major step toward the Republicans and the ISPs, which the Republicans chose not to recognize."
Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said the “rosy picture” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai gave on broadband access needs to be reworked before the agency votes on its annual deployment report. Chairman Pai first teased the report in Feb 2019, saying he’d circulated it to his fellow commissioners and hoped to get a vote on it soon (commissioners can vote in favor of adopting the annual report or can dissent if they disagree with its findings). The report claims the number of Americans that lack access to broadband has dropped 25 percent — but Free Press said one new provider apparently overstated its reach enough to skew that data. Commissioner Starks said the provider, BarrierFree, is under FCC investigation and called on Chairman Pai to remove the report from circulation. “When you have the report that the digital divide is closing, and then you have — as alleged — over 60 million fraudulently, over-inflated numbers by BarrierFree, it seems to me that the only thing the chairman can do is take that report down,” Commissioner Starks said. An FCC spokesman said the agency is looking into the issue. BarrierFree’s Jim Gerbig said there was an error in the company’s filing with the FCC, and it doesn’t reflect the current level of broadband deployment. Gerbig said the company is working with the FCC to update its filing. “With the government shutdown in January, we were unable to submit revised documents before the full report went live,” Gerbig said.
We have had what appears to be the world’s most expensive and ineffective universal service program. Until now. The Federal Communications Commission is taking significant steps to dismantle the traditional system and replace it with something world class. In 2018, the FCC launched a new approach that uses a reverse auction to force companies to compete for subsidies. A reverse auction begins with a maximum subsidy the FCC is willing to pay for someone to expand broadband service in a rural area. Companies compete by bidding the amount down. The company with the lowest bid receives the new lower subsidy in exchange for committing to specific broadband rollouts. How well did this work? In 2018 the auction resulted in subsidies 70 percent below what the FCC had projected, saving at least $3.5 billion over 10 years.
On Feb 12, 2019 Sen Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced The Office of Rural Broadband Act in the Senate (S 454), which would establish an Office of Rural Broadband in the Federal Communications Commission. Sen Cramer’s Office of Rural Broadband Act is the latest effort to coordinate rural broadband planning and policy. As I recently wrote for the New York Times, this Office of Rural Broadband is best placed inside the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) of the US Dept of Agriculture, rather than the Federal Communications Commission, as S.454 proposes. RUS has a mandate to champion rural America, and has offices and divisions in every state. RUS understands the needs of rural communities better than any federal department or agency. Placing the Office of Rural Broadband here, rather than at the FCC, would also recall an earlier time in our nation’s history when we trusted USDA to connect our rural communities with electricity and telephony through the Rural Electrification Administration, the precursor to RUS. What S 454, its forerunners, and companion pieces of proposed legislation, demonstrate is not a lack of drive to solve the problem, but rather the political will to follow through. Legislation is proposed and funding allocated, but a centralized strategy to shepherd these initiatives through to fruition remains vexingly absent. The Office of Rural Broadband Act has the potential to do this, but for it to work, we need to give this dog both bark and bite.
On March 12, 2019, I was honored to appear before the Senate Communications Subcommittee to testify on “The Impact of Broadband Investments in Rural America.” I provided my personal views, bringing the perspective of a former government official with 22 years of experience at the Federal Communications Commission and National Telecommunications and Information Administration, with the last decade focused on the FCC’s Connect America Fund. My five-minute opening statement follows:
I view the recent Phase II auction as a success. There may be more work to be done on the margins but big picture – we now have verification of performance and an ability to track progress in closing the digital divide. I highlight five points for future action:
- It may make sense to discard the notion of a separate Remote Areas Fund and roll the areas that didn’t get bids in the Phase II auction into the FCC’s upcoming auction for the geographic areas now receiving Phase II support, which I’ll refer to as the Phase III auction.
- The FCC needs to recalibrate its vision for what is the minimum requirement in any future auction. 10/1 Mbps is yesterday’s technology. Raising the minimum performance standard logically would expand the geographic areas eligible for bidding in the Phase III auction.
- Efforts to develop a better understanding of fixed broadband service availability should not prevent the FCC from moving to the Phase III auction in a timely manner.
- The federal government needs to share information in near real-time – both across federal agencies, and with state and local officials engaged in similar efforts – regarding the specific geographic areas where parties have applied for funding, or where funding has been authorized, even if construction has not yet occurred.
- The current USF contributions system needs an overhaul. Parsing revenues into assessable and non-assessable buckets is like counting how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin. With modes of communications changing and business models evolving, it’s time to have a thoughtful conversation about new ways to ensure that the universal service fund remains on a solid footing.
[Carol Mattey is the former Deputy Bureau Chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau (2010–2017) and Senior Advisor on the National Broadband Plan (2009–2010)]
Portland (OR) is suing the Federal Communications Commission for its wireless pre-emption order, which went into effect in Jan 2019 and limits local government authority to regulate how 5G small cell equipment is deployed. In Sept 2018, the FCC passed a wireless pre-emption order that it says will help streamline 5G small cell deployments and ensure that wireless carriers have low-cost access to public rights of way and existing support structures such as city-owned utility poles and street lights. The FCC has said the order was necessary to “help ensure the United States wins the global race to 5G,” by removing regulatory barriers that it claims would “unlawfully inhibit the deployment of infrastructure necessary to support these new services.” Wireless carriers have argued that a rapid 5G deployment will require rules to help carriers navigate the permitting process which varies across local governments and municipalities. This is a problem that carriers had to deal with when deploying 4G small cells. Portland's Mayor Ted Wheeler has called the FCC order a “land grab against local infrastructure.”
Facebook’s effort to establish a service that provides its users with local news and information is being hindered by a lack of outlets where the company’s technicians can find original reporting. The service, called "Today In" and launched in 2018, is available in some 400 cities in the United States. But the social media giant said it has found that 40% of Americans live in places where there weren’t enough local news stories to support it. Facebook announced it would share its research with academics at Duke, Harvard, and the universities of Minnesota and North Carolina who are studying the extent of news deserts created by newspaper closures and staff downsizing. Some 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States over the last 15 years, according to the University of North Carolina. The company plans to award some 100 grants, ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, to people with ideas for making more news available, said Josh Mabry, head of local news partnerships for Facebook. That comes on top of $300 million in grants Facebook announced in January to help programs and partnerships designed to boost local news.
For Fiscal Year 2020, the Federal Communications Commission is requesting the budget and personnel amounts that are summarized in the bullets below:
- The Commission requests $335,660,000 in budget authority from regulatory fee offsetting collections. The requested budget level recommended by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) of $335,660,000 for FY 2020 is $3,950,000 less than the Congressionally authorized budget level of $339,610,000 included in the 2018 FCC Reauthorization in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. Also, the OMB recommended request level for FY 2020 of $335,660,000 represents a decrease of $3,340,000 or about 1.0 percent from the FY 2019 appropriated level of $339,000,000.
- Prior to the passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019, OMB approved up to $9.141 million in one-time IT investments for the Commission in FY 2020.
- The Commission requests $132,538,680 in budget authority for the spectrum auctions program. For FY 2019, the Congress appropriated a cap of $130,284,000 for the spectrum auctions program, which included additional funds to implement the requirements of the RAY BAUM’S Act of 2018 (2018 Act) that mandated significant additional work for the FCC related to the TV Broadcaster Relocation Fund (TVBRF). The Commission’s FY 2020 budget authority request of $132,538,680 is an increase of $2,254,680 or 1.7 percent, which represents only non-salary inflationary increases. This level of funding will enable the Commission to continue its efforts to: reimburse full power and Class A stations, multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), Low Power TV (LPTV), TV translator, and FM stations for reasonable costs incurred as a result of the Commission’s incentive auction; make more spectrum available for 5G; and educate consumers affected by the reorganization of broadcast television spectrum. To date, the Commission’s spectrum auctions program has generated over $114.6 billion for government use; at the same time, the total cost of the auctions program has been less than $2.0 billion or less than 1.7 percent of the total auctions’ revenue.
- In creating a lean, accountable, more efficient Commission that works for the American people, the Commission requests 1,448 Full Time Equivalents (FTEs) funded by budget authority from both regulatory fee offsetting collections and the spectrum auctions program. This FTE level is the same as the level enacted by the FCC for FY 2019. With this FTE level, the Commission will continue to meet its mission demands in FY 2020.
Attorney General William Barr has asserted the state secrets privilege for the first known time since he was sworn in in Feb, using the controversial legal tool in a lawsuit brought by the social media company Twitter over its bid to publish a more complete account of government surveillance requests. AG Barr filed a formal declaration invoking the privilege on March 15 with a federal judge in Oakland (CA) who has been handling the suit Twitter filed more than four years ago. In the case, the company contends its First Amendment rights are being violated by the government’s refusal to allow the firm to publish more detailed statistics on National Security Letters and surveillance orders the firm receives under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. US District Court Judge Yvonne Rogers is considering giving Twitter’s attorneys access to a top-secret declaration a top FBI official filed in 2016 describing the harms that could ensue if the firm was able to be more specific about the US surveillance requests. AG Barr said the Justice Department will not to give the lawyers access to the classified statement from former Executive Assistant Director Michael Steinbach. Should the judge insist that the Twitter attorneys have access, the government will shut the litigation down via the state secrets privilege, a legal mechanism to limit or end litigation that could impact US national security, the attorney general said.
Government & Communications
The Federal Communications Commission is asking a judge to reject The New York Times Company's request for information about comments submitted to the agency in its 2017 net neutrality proceeding. The agency argues that the data sought by the Times -- including IP addresses associated with comments -- would compromise commenters' privacy. The FCC also says it can't provide the information sought by the news company without undertaking new research. In Sept 2018, the Times filed a lawsuit investigating possible Russian meddling in a proceeding that resulted in the repeal of the Obama-era net neutrality rules. The Times is seeking IP addresses, timestamps and user-agent headers (which could provide information about commenters' browsers) for all public comments regarding net neutrality submitted between April 26, 2017 and June 7, 2017. The newspaper argues that it's entitled to the information under the Freedom of Information Act. The FCC says it's entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that the information is exempt from FOIA laws, arguing that the agency's comment system isn't configured to provide that kind of data.
On March 17, President Donald Trump defended two of Fox's right-wing opinion shows and criticized three of the network's news anchors. Most notably of all, he used Twitter to send a long message to Fox executives, urging them to "stay true to the people that got you there." "Bring back @JudgeJeanine Pirro. The Radical Left Democrats, working closely with their beloved partner, the Fake News Media, is using every trick in the book to SILENCE a majority of our Country. They have all out campaigns against @FoxNews hosts who are doing too well. Fox....must stay strong and fight back with vigor. Stop working soooo hard on being politically correct, which will only bring you down, and continue to fight for our Country. The losers all want what you have, don’t give it to them. Be strong & prosper, be weak & die! Stay true...to the people that got you there. Keep fighting for Tucker, and fight hard for @JudgeJeanine. Your competitors are jealous - they all want what you’ve got - NUMBER ONE. Don’t hand it to them on a silver platter. They can’t beat you, you can only beat yourselves!" During a busy day of tweets he also insulted CNN; complained about late-night shows; and mused about a government investigation of the comedy show "Saturday Night Live." The sheer volume of tweets — suggesting a St. Patrick's Day full of TV watching — was a testament to Fox's influence within the White House.
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