Barely a Peep From New FCC Commissioners at Senate Hearing

Lawmakers take up pet issues at FCC oversight hearing

The two new Federal Communications Commissioners, Ajit Pai (R) and Jessica Rosenworcel (D) had their coming out party Wednesday in an oversight hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. It was the first opportunity lawmakers, regulators and industry lobbyists had to see how the two new Commissioners stand on major issues facing the FCC, from implementing incentive spectrum auctions to review of the media ownership rules.

But that will have to wait for another day. The hearing quickly turned into an opportunity for Committee members to take up their flashpoint issues with Chairman Julius Genachowski and the two veteran Commissioners, Robert McDowell (R) and Mignon Clyburn (D).

Naturally, on the controversial issues raised by lawmakers both lawmakers and Commissioners split along party lines, which was ironic following Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) advice to the Commissioners to avoid “getting caught in partisan crosshairs.”

GOP members are still smarting from the FCC’s net neutrality rule, currently being challenged in court by Verizon. Practically every single GOP member scolded the FCC for what Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) called an “overstep” of the Commission’s authority. (The rule is currently being challenged in court by Verizon.)

“The greatest obstacle in the [Internet] industry, whether content providers or networks, is arbitrary and unpredictable rulemaking,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). “It’s remarkable to think we can mange the Internet and pick winners and losers.”

Robert McDowell, for more than a year, the lone Republican on the FCC, agreed, while Genachowski called net neutrality “essential” to preserving an open Internet.

Democrats were also predictable. Sen. Kerry expressed concerns over a lack of competition in the wireless and broadband. “There are only two dominant wireless providers, and only two for broadband,” Kerry said.

“Duopoly is not ideal,” Genachowski said. But McDowell countered that “well over 100 million, over half the marketplace, is picking up wireless from other than AT&T or Verizon.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) took up his major pet peeve, what he sees as News Corp’s mismanagement of WWOR, a New York station that is licensed to New Jersey. “What does it take for FCC to investigate News Corp., asked Lautenberg, referencing the News Corp. hacking scandal?”

Commissioners dodged the question. “We don’t comment on status of negotiations,” Genachowski said. “It’s important that we not prejudge it.”

A number of other issues came up in the hearing including the FCC’s progress on holding incentive spectrum auctions, the ongoing efforts to reform the universal service fund, and the status of the review of media ownership rules.