Pai and Dems at Odds Over Broadcast Regs

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In the first FCC oversight hearing with the full complement of five Commissioners, Chairman Ajit Pai told House lawmakers he’s asking his colleagues to vote on an item that would eliminate several broadcast ownership regulations. His goal is to vote on the item at the agency’s November 16 meeting. He said the item would eliminate rules that ban cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in a market, plus cross-ownership of TV and radio stations in a market. It would also eliminate the requirement that Joint Sales Agreements for Television “count” for ownership purposes in a market and establish an incubator program for new, diverse broadcast station owners.

Democrats on the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee blasted Pai, saying to them, it’s clear the changes would benefit Sinclair Broadcasting before its planned merger with Tribune. Pai said the merger has nothing to do with the item, that the rules are archaic and hinder broadcasters. “The FCC rules still presume a market is defined by pulp and rabbit ears,” Pai said, adding the proposed text would be publicly available today.  

His announcement of the media rule proposals came after Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), and Mike Doyle (D-PA) hammered him about recent Commission decisions they perceive as benefitting big business. They also criticized what they said was his slow response to President Trump’s recent tweet about NBC’s license, because of Trump’s displeasure with the network’s coverage of his administration. Pai repeated he believes in the First Amendment and that “the federal government has no business intervening in the news.”

Lawmakers and Commissioners also discussed mobile broadband, especially carving out new spectrum for 5G. New Commissioner Brendan Carr is focused on streamlining infrastructure deployment, saying “5G is going to involve a 10- to 100-fold increase in small cells in addition to millions of miles of new fiber and other high-speed connections. The current regulatory regime is not designed to support or process deployments on this type of scale. It costs too much and takes too long.”

The broadcast repack was briefly discussed. Pai repeated what he recently told Senate lawmakers, that the FCC will need to come back to Congress to ask for more reimbursement money for broadcasters that need to change channels. Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) asked what could happen to the timeline because of the tower worker shortage.

Pai said the FCC tried to structure the construction phases to accommodate weather and crew availability variables. If there’s an issue, “we’d work with stakeholders and Congress to see what we can do,” said Pai. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly added that some of the wireless associations are working on the problem. “We need to get through some phases to see where we are.”

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

October 26, 2017   

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