FCC Oversight Hearing Gets Testy

Tensions were high at Wednesday’s oversight hearing of the Federal Communications Commission.
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Tensions were high at Wednesday’s oversight hearing of the Federal Communications Commission. The partisan personalities of the commission were on display over issues such as its legislative authority and whether its actions have depressed broadband deployment.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee held an oversight hearing to question the Chairman Wheeler and his four colleagues on policy issues, and to evaluate the need for future legislative initiatives.

Topics raised by congressional committee members were improvements to rural broadband deployment, the upcoming television incentive auction and innovation in the video market.

Interestingly, pirate radio, which has been an item raised in previous congressional hearing discussions, was not brought up in substance during the hearing.

[See our related story on the FCC’s new pirate radio advisory.]

Half way through the three-hour-long hearing, issues of disagreement bubbled to the surface regarding the commission’s stance on innovation and competition as it effects the Internet, and whether the rules that the FCC adopted in its Open Internet Order last year have spurred or limited innovation. In that order the FCC reclassified Internet providers’ offerings as telecommunications services under Title II of the Communications Act.

When called on to share his opinion, Commissioner Ajit Pai didn’t mince words.

“What we’ve seen is the fact that among providers, innovation is slowing,” he said. The industry is seeing one of the largest declines in broadband wireless investment due to the commission’s actions via the Open Internet Order and Title II, he said.

Chairman Tom Wheeler disagreed: “With all due respect to my colleague, what he’s just portrayed as facts are not,” he said; rather, investment and usage of the Internet is up.

Back and forth squabbling ensued. “The regulatory infrastructure we have built is now depressing broadband investment,” Pai replied. “Facts speak for themselves.”

Members of the committee also asked for FCC action on issues such as cramming, which involves the addition of unauthorized charges on a consumer’s phone bill, and spoofing, in which a caller ID service is used to knowingly misidentify a caller.

Wrapping up the hearing was a question posed by Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) to Wheeler on whether he will follow precedent and commit to resigning his chairmanship after a new president is elected in November. The FCC chairman traditionally resigns his chair unless asked to remain at the helm by the newly elected president.

Wheeler told the panel that the election was too far in the future for him to make an ironclad commitment one way or another. Wheeler’s term officially ends in January 2018.

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