FCC Oversight Hearing Brings the Heat From Lawmakers

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All five FCC Commissioners faced partisan wrangling from the House Energy and Commerce telecommunications subcommittee for an oversight hearing Thursday. Topics discussed during the more than three-and-a-half-hour virtual event ranged from network resiliency amid the California wildfires and latest hurricanes to 5G and efforts to increase rural broadband.

But the tone was often rancorous, especially given the title of the hearing: “Trump FCC: Four Years of Lost Opportunities.” Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA), said “Broadband has become the process by which we work, stay healthy,” and more. “Zoom has become a verb,” he noted.

But he and other Democrats highlighted the digital divide, exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. Doyle said the lack of broadband is hindering students’ education and their access to economic opportunity. “We need a national plan. We cannot rely on private companies to get us through this crisis.”

“This FCC,” said Doyle, has been “dead set on removing consumer protections. This FCC needs to do better.”  

Bob Latta (R-OH) countered that the agency succeeded in getting carriers and other providers in agreeing to maintain subscribers’ phone and internet connectivity for several months as the pandemic began, and many of those companies kept up the actions for several months. Concerning 5G deployment, under this FCC’s light-touch regulation, broadband providers have been able to focus on wireless infrastructure, he noted.

That focus, said Latta, “allowed our communications networks to hold up despite the heavy use over the past few months. Yet despite this, he said to Doyle, “you decided to hold this partisan hearing today.”

Frank Pallone (D-NJ), chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, said: “We’re likely to hear from Commissioners about their accomplishments, but to me, it’s more like a Republican wish list.” He ticked off decisions he didn’t agree with, such as the easing of environmental and tribal review of small cells in certain cases.

Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) formerly chaired the committee and helped bring about FirstNet. The former radio station owner announced in October 2019 he would not seek re-election to Congress.

Walden said: “The hearing title is wrong. This FCC has done a lot. The FCC has done so much to connect consumers and doctors during the pandemic.” He also cited the agency’s work to reduce robocalls. “These are hardly opportunities missed.” He also cited the “largest mid-band spectrum auction” in the agency’s history, which is on-track to begin in December, referring to C-band.

On a poignant note, all five Commissioners attended, yet this was likely the last time Michael O’Rielly will testify before Congress as a sitting Commissioner. Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle congratulated him on a job well done and wished him well.

The issue of O’Rielly’s nomination for a third term at the FCC being scuttled by the White House was not discussed during the hearing, however he did mention it in his written testimony. “In all honesty, there is no salacious story to report. No demands were made to support any position, and no pressure was applied to take any particular action,” O’Rielly wrote. “I had no conversations with the White House on withdrawing the nomination prior to that point and none since.”

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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