Originally published: May 16, 2012
Last updated: May 16, 2012 - 10:00pm
The full Senate Commerce Committee held an oversight hearing on the Federal Communications Commission on May 16. The hearing offered Committee members an opportunity to convey their priorities and to hear from the five FCC commissioners about efforts to protect consumers and carry out the public interest. Senators rushed through their questioning of FCC commissioners during the oversight hearing so they would not have to hold the panel over while they voted on the floor, but Commerce Committee members still hit on plenty of topics, including on the network neutrality.
Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) commended the FCC for reforming the Universal Service Fund. He also identified his priorities: spectrum auctions, a public safety broadband network, and the E-rate program which discounts telecommunications service for schools and libraries. Chairman Rockefeller got all five commissioners to commit to not raiding the E-rate fund to support digital literacy, something Rockefeller feared the FCC was planning. “Finally,” he said, “we may hear calls for the agency’s statutory authority to be updated. As I have indicated before, as Chairman of this Committee, I am willing to lead that effort. But I am not interested in a reform exercise that puts the thumb on the scale to benefit one industry player, at the expense of another. Any effort to revise or update the law must keep consumers front and center. And regardless of any such effort, it is imperative the FCC continues to use all its existing authority to robustly protect consumers and the public interest.”
Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison urged the FCC Commissioners to move quickly on bringing spectrum to the wireless market in order to increase competition in the mobile broadband industry. She also pressed FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on allowing the planned Texas emergency responder network to go forward so that it can be ready in time for the start of hurricane season. Last year, the Texas Department of Public Safety received a waiver from the FCC to begin deploying a 4G mobile broadband data network for emergency personnel. Several sites in the state are prepared to move forward with their projects, and Harris County, in particular, can turn on its network within weeks. The State of Texas is now just waiting on the FCC to approve the technical aspects of its plan.
Chairman Genachowski said that the FCC had not received a single complaint in the six months since its Open Internet order went into effect, but also said that if a court overturns it, he would urge Congress to codify it. He would not rule out classifying Internet service providers as a Title II service if the court overturned, but said he is on the record as saying "that it not the best idea." New Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said she agreed with the chairman, but pointed out that the FCC has been reclassifying services for a decade. Commissioner Robert McDowell, who advocates closing the Title II docket, shot back that the FCC had never classified Internet access as a Title II service, and added that leaving the docket open had "devastating" implications internationally for the effort to push back on an ITU effort to regulate the Internet.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) pressed the commissioners to investigate alleged misconduct by News Corporation. He wants the commission to investigate whether the illicit activities News Corporation executives are accused of in the United Kingdom, including hacking into subjects’ voicemails, bribing officials for information and obstructing justice, might extend to the United States. “Despite this long list [of allegations], the FCC did not announce plans for any proactive investigation,” Sen Lautenberg said. “What does it take?” Chairman Genachowski told Sen Lautenberg that, since matters involving News Corporation may come before the commission, “it would be inappropriate to prejudge them.” “We don't comment on the status of investigations,” he said. “Obviously we have important responsibilities that we take seriously.”
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