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2013 Communications Policy Issues

I attended the Broadband Breakfast meeting last week, where Rep. Anna Eshoo and three Congressional staff gave an interesting preview of the communications policy issues to be addressed in the 113th Congress. Democrats continue to control the Senate (55-45, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats) and Republicans continue to control the U.S. House (233-200).  The agenda on communications policy issues for 2013 will focus heavily on spectrum, wireless and privacy issues:

  • Spectrum: Congress will continue to oversee the FCC’s implementation of the spectrum auction legislation enacted in February 2012. This law requires the FCC to conduct a one-time “reverse” or “incentive” auction in which broadcasters will identify how much money they would be willing to accept in return for turning back their spectrum to the government. The plan calls for the FCC to re-auction the returned spectrum out to the commercial sector for advanced wireless (cellular) service.  The law authorizes $7 billion from the auction proceeds to fund a new, nationwide, wireless public safety network (FirstNet).

    Some policy-makers are concerned that the FCC may try to allocate too much of the previously-broadcast spectrum for unlicensed (“Wi-Fi”) type services, which could reduce the revenues received from the auction.  However, the FCC Chairman recently proposed to allocate more spectrum for unlicensed use in the much higher 5 GHz range, which some say is not as useful for Wi-Fi because of its limited propagation.

    Congress will continue to put pressure on the Department of Defense to relinquish more spectrum to the commercial sector.  And the White House PCAST report, which encourages greater sharing of commercial/government spectrum, will continue to be debated.  The House has formed a bi-partisan Federal Spectrum Working Group to explore these issues.
     

  • Public Safety:  NTIA is developing network design and business plans for the nationwide public safety network, called FirstNet.  NTIA has created a Board and will be holding meetings throughout the year to develop standards for interoperability.  Congress is likely to schedule oversight hearings to make sure this process remains on track.  Some state-wide public safety agencies are frustrated that they are not being allowed to move forward with their own public safety networks until the national interoperability standards are finalized.
     
  • Wireless: Several Members of Congress will pursue legislation to protect wireless consumers.  Rep. Eshoo will introduce a bill to ensure that wireless companies do not provide misleading advertising about their “4G” services, especially concerning data caps and speeds.  Rep. Markey wants to extend wireless privacy protections to children.  Rep. Markey is also concerned about the growing number of law enforcement requests for cell phone records. 
     
  • Data Caps: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has introduced legislation that would force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to prove usage caps are designed to manage network congestion instead of monetizing consumer data usage.  The Data Cap Integrity Act would require the FCC to enact new rules forcing ISPs to justify their usage cap programs, create standards by how ISPs measure usage and provide useful measurement tools to customers before they incur overage fees.
     
  • Broadband: Congress continues to be concerned about broadband in rural and low-income areas.  Broadband is not yet available to 19 million people and over 100 Million people still do not subscribe.  The FCC reformed much of the Universal Service Fund (including E-rate and creating the Connect America Fund) in 2010-2012 to focus more on broadband, and Congress will be reviewing these reforms to see if they are reaching their objectives.
     
  • Transition to IP Networks:  AT&T has filed a petition with the FCC asking it to pre-empt state regulation of its “plain old telephone service” (POTS) so that it can invest more money in its broadband (IP) networks.  Rural telephone companies have also filed a petition to reduce regulations to encourage the transition to IP networks.  Critics allege that these petitions would allow telephone companies to withdraw from being the “carrier of last resort” in rural and high-cost areas (meaning those residents would not have any telephone service) and would dismantle competition.  The FCC has asked for comment, and Congress is likely to be very interested in how this petition would affect their constituents.
     
  • Net Neutrality: The courts are expected to rule on the FCC’s 2011 decision on Net Neutrality in the spring/summer of 2013.  No matter how the court rules, Congress is likely to consider legislation to overturn the court’s ruling, but it not clear that either side of this very partisan debate has enough votes to enact anything into law.

 

John Windhausen is President of Telepoly Consulting. He regularly works with EDUCAUSE Policy on matters of networking and telecommunications.

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