Congress Wants More Spectrum (and Broadband) From the FCC

How can we meet demand for spectrum and spur innovation?

This question sums up what all the Representatives were asking at today’s FCC Oversight Hearing before the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology—and it’s a really good question.  It shows that Congress is aware of the importance of wireless and wired technologies in the lives of consumers and businesses.  It also shows that they are eager to improve these technologies to promote competition, promote job creation, and help make our lives easier.  

House Representatives asked thoughtful and insightful questions of all 5 FCC Commissioners on meeting the demand for spectrum, providing universal broadband service, promptly addressing issues, updating regulations to ensure competitive markets and innovation, and even the storms that have been sweeping the country. 

Rep. Terry said early in the hearing:  it is “absolutely necessary” to have spectrum to meet growing demands. 

How do we do this? Incentive auctions, according to Chairman Genachowski. 

Rep. Eschoo agreed but urged the FCC to closely follow the Congressional intent to provide rules that will enhance competition, consumer choice, and innovation, while also providing new opportunities for unlicensed spectrum.

Genachowski agreed with Eshoo that unlicensed spectrum is “extraordinarily successful”—noting that it gave us wifi—and promised to ensure that innovators and entrepreneurs will have unlicensed spectrum to pursue new technologies. 

This promise to provide unlicensed spectrum would surely lead to great innovation in the future, but some representatives questioned whether incentive auctions would be enough and encouraged the use of shared spectrum as an additional technique to address the spectrum crunch. 

In the end, the representatives and the FCC came to some agreement that sharing spectrum is good, but not at the expense of clearing spectrum.

You can’t talk about spectrum these days without talking about the proposed Verizon/SpectrumCo license transfers.  Rep. Waxman reiterated concerns of PK and other interest groups by urging the FCC to raise serious questions about the proposed transactions because of how the deals could harm competition.

Concerns about meeting spectrum demand and encouraging innovation in the wireless market did not cause members of Congress to overlook the importance of wired technologies.  As Commissioner Rosenworcel explained, communications and media services, including broadband, are growing more complex and becoming integral parts of household budgets.  Most representatives are as dedicated as ever to making sure that all Americans have access to reliable and reasonably priced broadband services with money from the Universal Service Fund (USF).  Rep. Eshoo made it clear that the U.S. should be #1 in broadband and expressed gratitude to the FCC for its improvements in access around the country. 

But details of USF may still need some work.  Reps. Terry and Christensen worry that the models used to determine funding are inaccurate or use incorrect data and rural broadband service providers will receive less funding as a result (meaning people might be left without service).  Rep. Barton disagreed, however, and was at a loss as to why USF still exists.  He thinks that almost all the population has service at reasonable prices.  Even if this were true, the FCC should keep broadband implementation as one of its top priorities until all of the population has service at reasonable prices—and most representatives at the hearing agreed.

There was also lots of talk about special access—the high-capacity data links that are needed to provide service to some businesses and wireless towers.   Currently, businesses and wireless providers have to request access to these data links from incumbent phone providers.  Rep. Upton wondered whether there are sufficiently competitive alternatives to connect business and wireless services to the rest of the world, and how the Commission will gather data to determine this question when phone companies are loath to respond to data requests.  Chairman Genachowski said the FCC would gather data, but didn’t explain how, and Rep. Upton’s questions really went unanswered.

Talks about the weather—in the form of lost wireless and wired service—made it easy for anyone to relate to the concerns raised by the hearing.  With phone centers and 911 emergency services interrupted because of the freak storms we’ve seen recently, Rep. Upton made it clear that the FCC needed data on the extent of the interruptions with the goal of preventing interruptions, something we’d all like. 

And of course, the hot topic of internet governance made a brief appearance in today’s hearing.  Chairman Walden and Commissioner McDowell both maintain that a multistakeholder approach to internet governance is best, and that ITU regulation will only be harmful.  PK wholeheartedly agrees.

“We have to sometimes remind ourselves we’re in the 21st century, not the 19th, not the 20th” noted Rep. Eshoo.  With a slew of pointed questions, Congress appeared eager to move forward into the future of spectrum and broadband.  Let's hope they work with the FCC to actually do so.

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