FCC Faces Another House Communications Subcommittee Oversight Grilling
March 22, 2016 at 4:40 PM (PT)
The FCC was before the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee for another oversight hearing TODAY (3/22), and Chairman TOM WHEELER, while devoting much of his attention in his remarks to the television spectrum incentive auction, privacy, lifeline coverage of broadband, and 5G wireless broadband, did conclude his testimony with comments on pirate radio enforcement, to which, he said, the Commission "remains committed." He pointed to over 300 enforcement actions against pirate operators since he took office, and noted that 20% of Enforcement Bureau activities were directed towards pirate radio.
"We have also shifted from our historic 'whack-a-mole' enforcement approach," WHEELER said, "to focus on the worst actors -- pirates that are repeat offenders, that cause interference to licensed broadcasters, that run advertisements, and that operate at high power. And when we catch them, we're pursuing every enforcement option available against these individuals -- from initial warning letters, to monetary forfeitures, to equipment seizures. And we'll continue to go after them until they are off the air." But he asked for Congress' help "to ensure that there are legal consequences for the landlords who look the other way because helping pirates puts money in their pockets. Congress could make it illegal to aid or abet pirate radio operations. Doing so would put pirates on the run and help us put them out of business."
WHEELER battled the Republican majority on the panel at the hearing, telling a skeptical Rep. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL) that he thinks the Commission does have the authority to use its enforcement powers to regulate broadband rates after the fact, despite KINZINGER's bill making its way through the Committee that would block FCC regulation of broadband rates and the OBAMA administration's previous assertions that it would not support rate regulation. Democrats on the panel were not happy with WHEELER's slow action on political advertising disclosure rules.
Pai Isn't Happy With The Majority
Commissioner AJIT PAI, a frequent critic of WHEELER's, focused on process reform as well as broadband access; he reiterated his recent criticism of the Commission being run "in a partisan fashion," noting that there have been 20 party-line votes since DECEMBER 2013, twice as many as under the previous four Chairs combined. Proposals by the two Republican Commissioners, PAI complained, "have been roundly rejected as crossing a 'red line,' even when an identical proposal from a Democratic Commissioner is accepted later on. And requests by Republican Commissioners to increase transparency or amend a proposal are routinely ignored, which means the Commission regularly adopts orders without any official response to our requests." He lamented the end of the FCC's "rich history of working across the aisle" and how "collaboration has fallen by the wayside," a marked change from the Commissions of Chairs JULIUS GENACHOWSKI and MIGNON CLYBURN.
PAI also ripped the Commission’s Office of Media Relations as having been "transformed from a shop of career staffers dedicated to representing the interests of the agency as a whole into a propaganda machine for the Chairman’s Office," feeding non-public information to the press and other outside parties "while other Commissioners are left in the dark.... The agency’s media blitz often appears designed to exert pressure on other Commissioners, both Democrats and Republicans alike, to vote for the Chairman’s proposals." And he criticized WHEELER and the majority for flouting the rules by using the Commission's merger review process to invalidate joint services agreements that were specifically permitted by Congressional mandate, a sentiment echoed by questioning of WHEELER by panel Republicans.
O'Rielly Isn't All That Pleased With The Majority, Either
Commissioner MIKE O'RIELLY's testimony was also marked by discontent with the more partisan and uncooperative atmosphere he senses at the Commission, calling the panel "often fragmented, which is especially noticeable for the larger ticket items," and blaming much of the problem on "procedural fouls that are unnecessary, unwise and harmful" and the failure of WHEELER's majority to moderate the scope of items to give the two Republicans room to compromise without having to "undermine our fundamental principles." He complained that the Democratic majority is "constantly pushing the envelope into questionable directions, at the expense of collegiality, staff morale, and soundness of decisions. Indeed, the fact that Congress has begun to intervene on a bipartisan basis to overrule certain FCC decisions shows the extent of the Commission’s overreach.... Transparency continues to be treated as merely a buzzword, parties engaging with the Commission are treated unfairly, and the agency minimizes accountability in many instances by delegating decisions to the Bureaus that should be made by the Commissioners."
O'RIELLY was also critical of the Commission hiding proposals from the public "until it is too late for meaningful input," with the Chairman, he said, only releasing an "often inaccurate or misleading fact sheet purporting to describe the details of each major proposal, along with one or more prose versions of the same talking points in the form of a press statement or blog post." He asserted that his formal request for written authorization to discuss matters like the Lifeline and Broadband Privacy items have been ignored, effectively denying the requests, and that "it has become standard procedure for the Chairman’s staff to provide off-the-record briefings to favored reporters days before an item is circulated to Commissioners. The day of circulation, a major press rollout occurs complete with press releases, blogs and fact sheets, but the actual document under consideration doesn’t hit my inbox until hours later, sometimes late at night. Meanwhile the press is reporting that the item has circulated and asking for comment." And he repeated his concern that the Enforcement Bureau is determining guilt before serving citations to entities that don't even know that they are subject to FCC regulation, like banks.
Commissioner CLYBURN limited her remarks to broadband deployment, the Lifeline program, and 5G. Commissioner JESSICA ROSENWORCEL kept things to broadband as well, talking about the need for more unlicensed spectrum for wireless broadband and also discussing the "Homework Gap" exacerbated by, she said, the "digital divide."