While Congress Delays, the Task Force Will Play

Cite this Article
Eric Fruits, While Congress Delays, the Task Force Will Play, Truth on the Market (June 16, 2023), https://truthonthemarket.com/2023/06/16/while-congress-delays-the-task-force-will-play/

With the first day of summer less than a week away and political silly season just around the corner, we don’t have much time for hootenannies. Congress needs to channel the wisdom of Jerry Reed, who noted: “We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there.”

In early March, Congress allowed the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) spectrum-auction authority to lapse for the first time since the authority was granted to the FCC in 1994. A bill to renew auction authority passed out of the U.S. House earlier this year, but has yet to be taken up in the Senate. Aside from tabling future auctions, the lapse is stifling the deployment of some 5G spectrum that was already auctioned off.

T-Mobile paid $304 million for 7,156 licenses of 2.5 GHz spectrum in last summer’s auction. But according to Fierce Telecom, the company can’t deploy the spectrum it won. That’s because the FCC claims it cannot issue licenses for the 2.5 GHz spectrum to T-Mobile until its auction authority is reinstated.

While T-Mobile has attempted to obtain a waiver—known as special temporary authority—to deploy its newly purchased 2.5 GHz spectrum, and there is some debate over whether the lapse in authority scuttles deployment of already-won spectrum, the clearest path out of this logjam lies with congressional action to quickly restore the FCC’s auction authority.

But Wait, There’s More…

As we’ve noted earlier, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) that provides broadband subsidies to low-income households is likely to run out of funding sometime in the first half of next year.

Clearly, this is going to affect households who receive the subsidies. But just as importantly, the funding uncertainty may threaten anticipated broadband investments. At a Broadband Breakfast event, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Blair Levin argued that the ACP encourages providers to invest in low-income communities. If there is less certainty that those ACP funds will continue into the future, then investments in those communities will become more risky. That added risk would, in turn, reduce the incentives to make those investments.

Because the ACP is funded with appropriations from Congress, rather than a dedicated source—such as the Universal Service Fund surcharge—only Congress can keep the program running past next year.

One More Thing…

Politico reports that “major battle lines” are forming among congressional Republicans over this year’s farm bill. Telecompetitor reports that NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association and WTA–Advocates for Rural Broadband have been pushing Congress to add the ReConnect broadband program into the farm bill as an authorized program, rather than as a congressionally appropriated program. Doing so would make ReConnect a permanent program, rather than one up for periodic renewal.

An International Center of Law & Economics (ICLE) policy brief took issue with some of the implementation features of the ReConnect program: in particular, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s attempts to introduce back-door rate regulation. This includes giving preference to applicants who agree to abide by so-called “net neutrality” rules similar to those that the FCC had eliminated in 2018’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. USDA also imposes a quality mandate (100/100 Mbps) and gives preference to applicants who offer a “low-cost option.”

Even so, WTA has been urging the next farm bill to prioritize fiber deployments, rather than focusing on minimum-speed requirements. Anything that gets away from de facto rate regulation is an improvement, but that’s moot if Congress doesn’t pass the bill.

‘What We Need Is Another Task Force,’ Said No One Ever

Earlier this week, the FCC announced the creation of a new task force to address privacy and data security. Chair Jessica Rosenworcel’s announcement at the Center for Democracy & Technology conveniently coincides with ongoing debates in Congress over privacy legislation that could potentially limit the FCC’s jurisdiction in these matters.

Rosenworcel claims that the task force will bring together experts from various fields within the agency to coordinate efforts and enforce existing policies. Leading the task force is Loyaan Egal, head of the agency’s enforcement bureau, who will work with the agency’s growing staff dedicated to these issues.

According to Rosenworcel, the task force met for the first time this week. She detailed its responsibilities to include addressing data breaches, SIM-swapping fraud, and the implementation of the Safe Connections Act. She also mentioned ongoing investigations into carriers’ handling of geolocation data, hinting at possible enforcement actions against companies that compromise customer security.

As Jerry Reed sings: “Ol’ Task Force’s got them ears on and they’re hot on your trail / They ain’t gonna rest ’til you’re in jail.”

These enforcement actions would require the support of at least two of the other three FCC commissioners. But the commission is, for the moment, evenly divided between Democratic and Republican appointees. If the Senate approves the nomination of Anna Gomez to fill the FCC’s open Democratic seat, the commission would have a Democratic majority that would make it easier for Rosenworcel to pursue her proposals.

There’s never a dull week at the Telecom Hootenanny. Until next time, “keep that diesel truckin’.”