There has been no honeymoon for Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. On his 39th day at the regulatory agency, Wheeler got an earful from the GOP-controlled communications and technology subcommittee. Democrats also weren’t shy about making a few suggestions.
Wheeler walked into the oversight hearing under a cloud of controversy for beginning a rulemaking that could lift the ban on in-flight cell phone calls.
Since he put the item on the agency’s agenda for its monthly meeting Thursday afternoon, press reports envisioning chaos in the skies have overshadowed his agenda and a carefully crafted message about how the FCC would usher in “a network revolution” that comes “chock full of challenges.”
Instead, Wheeler was forced to defend the rulemaking on in-flight phone calls by describing the FCC as a “technical agency.” “Where there is new onboard technology that eliminates the potential for interference, then there is no need for an interference rule,” said Wheeler.
Wheeler said he spoke with the secretary of transportation Anthony Fox, who will be moving forward on a rule to address calls on airplanes.
There were only a few fireworks, most from the GOP side of the aisle. Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) blasted the FCC for failing to address “long overdue responsibilities,” such as the review of media ownership rules now nearly three years behind schedule. “Where is it?” Walden asked. “It’s fallen woefully behind.”
Walden also took the FCC to task for a study on reducing minority barriers to entry that he said crossed the line by investigating how stations make editorial decisions.
“We have to have facts,” Wheeler said in defense of the study. “We put it out for public notice to get the kind of input you are suggesting. It’s not to influence the media.”
Wheeler and the GOP did agree on the need for FCC process reform to make the agency more efficient. “It’s significant, noted and appreciated,” Wheeler said of the bill passed by the commerce committee Wednesday.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats wanted some assurances (and they got them) on a number of other issues, including net neutrality (the FCC’s open Internet rules are awaiting a court ruling), making sure the agency would continue to work to expand broadband to schools through the e-rate program, and building out a next generation public safety network.
In response to a question from ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) on cell phone unlocking, Wheeler said he had a voluntary agreement with the wireless carriers that will be presented during the commission’s meeting later today.
Everyone on the subcommittee was concerned about details and decisions that the FCC will need to make around the spectrum auction, which will provide much needed spectrum for the mobile marketplace and fund the public safety network. Though Wheeler recently delayed the auction by six months to 2015, no one faulted him for taking the time to get the most complex auction of wireless spectrum right.
Wheeler was still unclear about whether or not he favored limiting bidding by the big two wireless companies (AT&T and Verizon) that is advocated by Democrats and smaller wireless companies worried that the big two would gobble up all the proceeds.
The two GOP commissioners were in lock-step that the statute governing the spectrum auction was clear and that any restriction would mean less revenue. “Broadcast prices should be set by the market, not by independent fiat,” said commissioner Ajit Pai. “We should not limit a carrier’s ability to participate.”