U.S. Senate Probes FCC Commissioners at Recent Oversight Hearing

by Tiffany Bain and Simon Kwak on March 17, 2013

Chairman Genachowski SpeakingEvery year, Congress conducts oversight hearings on the Federal Communications Commission through its Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to review the way the agency is carrying out its duties. At the most recent hearing last Tuesday, all five Commissioners provided answers and recommendations on several topics, including the Commission’s proceedings on voluntary spectrum incentive auctions and media ownership.

Seated in a packed hearing room at the Russell Senate Office Building, the Commissioners expressed optimism for the FCC’s first voluntary broadcast spectrum incentive auctions, which are scheduled for 2014, and its media ownership proceeding.

Spectrum incentive auctions: Will they run smoothly after the Chairman’s term expires?

Responding to the Committee’s Ranking Member Sen. John Thune’s (R-SD) point that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s term ends this summer, Genachowski expressed confidence that the Commission’s preparations for the incentive auctions, which began prior to the passing of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, laid adequate groundwork for the auctions to proceed as scheduled.  On the other hand, Commissioners Robert McDowell, Mignon Clyburn, Ajit Pai, and Jessica Rosenworcel presented the complexities of implementing the auctions.

As McDowell warned the Committee members to not be surprised if roadblocks or “unforeseen circumstances” arise, Clyburn felt confident that the “aggressive and ambitious timeline” the FCC has set out to achieve will work. Pai and Rosenworcel advocated for imposing deadlines on the auctions as well. Pai also mentioned that the biggest challenge lies in how the auctions’ structure is organized.

“The auction is going to be a failure if the rules aren’t simple and compelling enough for them [broadcast licensees and bidders] to participate,” he said. “The auction will be a failure if we artificially restrict who can participate in the bidding on the incentive auctions.”

Genachowski also added that opportunities for commercial spectrum sharing be explored as well, particularly since the government has 60 percent of the most desired spectrum.

Committee Chair Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV) ensured that the Commissioners were aware that the $7 billion that Congress allocated for spectrum be used to maximize resources for a national interoperable network.

On the topic of the nation’s transition to IP networks, Rosenworcel opined that Congress and the FCC should include discussions of the role and state of commercial power.  Referring to how communication infrastructures failed during Superstorm Sandy, she stated that the conversation should center on identifying alternative backup energy sources in case of natural disasters.

Commissioners suggest that media ownership rules account for the changing times and diversity

The FCC Commissioners also commented on updating the agency’s current requirements on media ownership.

McDowell pointed out that the FCC is “long overdue on media ownership rules” and that the rules need updating. Genachowski explained that the media world, particularly as it relates to gathering and consuming information, has changed considerably since the last proceeding in 2007. Genachowski also pointed out that 30 percent of Americans, which is the same percentage of Americans who have not adopted broadband, still do not receive news from new media sources powered by the Internet.

Mentioning how the Commission was lambasted by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals for relaxing its rules without considering the diversity that exists within America, Rosenworcel said that the FCC will now have to grapple with how diversity of media ownership is affected by where news originates and how consumers receive the information. Citing a Pew study in her testimony, Rosenworcel said that 74 percent of Americans still get their information from local news media outlets. She also mentioned that while the media landscape is “dealing with new and novel ways” to obtain and disseminate information, the majority of news consumed by the public originates from traditional news sources, such as newspaper, television, and radio.

Clyburn and Pai agreed that the critical information needs of all communities must be considered throughout the proceedings to evaluate how the rules affect smaller markets across the U.S.

The hearing also covered issues such as a need for a second version of the E-Rate Program, the Communications and Video Accessibility Act, the modernization of the 1992 Cable Act, the legalization of cellphone unlocking, and the divergence between Congress’ implementing statute and the FCC’s promulgation of political advertising disclosure rules. The “Oversight of the Federal Communications Commission” hearing can be viewed in its entirety here.

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