Five Broadband Issues Being Debated in Washington

Five Broadband Issues Being Debated in Washington

As the Internet becomes increasingly important to commerce and daily life, broadband issues such as access, speed, and cost are top priorities for companies and consumers alike.  Policies made in Washington can have a big impact on whether we are satisfied with our broadband service.  Here are the top five broadband issues being discussed in the halls of Congress:

1.  An Open Internet — on June 12th, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2015 Open Internet Order, commonly referred to as net neutrality, went into effect.  This attempt to preserve a “fast, fair and open” Internet asserts the FCC’s authority to regulate it under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 – a law designed to govern utility companies.  While some of the requirements in the order have broad support – e.g., no paid priority (fast lanes) and no blocking legal content – other potential regulations are more controversial. Opponents of the FCC’s net neutrality order claim the agency is overreaching, and they have filed lawsuits to challenge the FCC.  The court decided not to stay the FCC’s order, but it will expedite the case.  Meanwhile, Congress is determining if it can garner bipartisan support to pass an up-to-date law that would provide guidance on how regulation of the Internet should occur.

2.  Low Income Access – In an effort expand broadband access, the FCC is engaged in another contentious move to reform the Lifeline program, which would provide subsidies for Internet service to people with low incomes.  The program currently offers subsidies for phone service, including mobile service.  It is financed through the Universal Service Fund, which collects fees from telecommunications providers (who often pass the charges on to consumers), to ensure access to telecommunications services for rural, low income, and underserved areas.  Opponents of the FCC’s move claim the underlying program is in need of reform to address documented inefficiencies before it can be expanded.  The FCC voted 3-2 on June 18th to move forward with expanding the Lifeline program, and is seeking comment on its proposal.

3.  Wireless Broadband – The use of wireless technology is exploding – a recent report reveals that Americans used 4.1 trillion megabytes of mobile data in 2014 or 26% more than in 2013.  Increased demand requires adequate access to wireless spectrum, a finite resource, to support speedy, uninterrupted transmission of data.  The Federal government has engaged in a number of efforts to free up and make available spectrum to wireless broadband.  The FCC is planning an incentive auction of licensed and unlicensed spectrum to meet wireless demand in the first quarter of 2016.  There has been intense lobbying around the issue of whether smaller carriers should have more spectrum set aside for their bidding, as well as how to preserve subsidies for small businesses (or bidding credits for designated entities) while ensuring that larger businesses aren’t gaming the subsidies to the detriment of truly small companies.  The FCC does not appear inclined to expand the set aside, but is considering reforms to help small bidders.  The FCC will meet on July 16 to vote on the issues.

4.  Public Safety – Conceived in the wake of 9/11, Congress established an initiative in 2012 called FirstNet to develop an interoperable, nationwide broadband public safety network.  The network would allow emergency communications among state, local, and federal public safety agencies.  FirstNet will use designated spectrum under a 10-year license.  The project has had a bumpy start, but appears to be moving slowly back on track.  Congress is focused on oversight of the effort to ensure the benefits of emergency communications among first responders can be achieved as envisioned by the 2012 law.

5.  Rural Access – For representatives and senators who serve rural communities, access to high-speed broadband is a critical issue.  Recently, a bipartisan group of 13 senators wrote to the Secretaries of Commerce and Agriculture, who serve as co-chairs of the Broadband Opportunity Council, which is comprised of 25 agencies and entities involved in broadband policy.  The letter asked for a detailed analysis (by August 20th) of all Federal initiatives that are designed to encourage broadband deployment in rural communities.    Separately, a group of 61 U.S. senators asked the FCC to modernize rules that are adversely affecting rural communities.  Namely, they point to out-of-date requirements that customers must purchase land-line voice service in order for the small carriers who are serving these high-cost rural communities to recover some of their costs through the FCC’s Universal Service Fund.