Congress to FCC: You've got some splainin' to do

Posted on February 14, 2007 - 9:12am.

from: Ars Technica

Congress to FCC: You've got some splainin' to do

2/13/2007 3:48:17 PM, by Nate Anderson

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) doesn't mess around. He currently chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and he's gearing up for a full-scale FCC hearing on February 15. He has already issued a string of pointed questions to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin that make one thing clear: Martin should not expect a rosy reception.

The pre-hearing questions are direct; the first one jumps right into the NSA wiretapping controversy, asking whether the FCC plans to investigate the actions of the public companies involved. The five commissioners have already responded to these pre-hearing questions; Martin's answer (PDF) to this first one is a resounding "no."

The second question is about the AT&T/BellSouth merger, which Martin and Commissioner Tate both signed with significant reservations. In fact, the text of their signing statement suggested that they might not implement some of the merger conditions they were agreeing to. Dingell's question goes to the heart of the matter: "What is your authority to approve an order and then refuse to implement it?" Martin explains that this is not what he meant; his statement simply said that the merger agreement would not set FCC precedent or bind future action, but that AT&T's existing obligations would be enforced.

The third question hammered away at US broadband policy, asking how the FCC hopes to improve the high-speed situation. Martin's response talks about how much the market has grown and how wonderful the current state of US broadband is. He pointed out that broadband lines have increased 52 percent in the last year. Commissioner Adelstein, one of the two Democrats on the Commission, differed from this rosy assessment (PDF).

"Virtually every other advanced country has implemented a national broadband strategy," he said in response to the same question. "Each year, we slip further down the regular rankings of broadband penetration. More troubling, there is growing evidence that citizens of other countries are getting a much greater broadband value, in the form of more megabits for less money. According to the ITU, the digital opportunity afforded to U.S. citizens is not even near the top; it's 21st in the world.

Both commissioners did agree that the FCC needs to overhaul its data collection methods, and both promised to revisit the issue of whether 200Kbps could legitimately serve as a threshold for broadband.

The remaining questions raised concerns about the "excessive concentration of licenses," the upcoming transition to digital television in 2009, and how the FCC is trying to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse in programs like the Universal Service Fund.

There were no softballs in the bunch, so expect more tough questioning when all five commissioners show up on Capitol Hill this Thursday. The Commerce Committee questions indicate that Dingell has no plans to take his oversight duties lightly; in fact, he has a fearsome reputation for doing oversight of federal agencies and seems to relish the work.

How much change Democrats can effect at the FCC while it retains a Republican majority remains to be seen, though. For now, competing ideological forces will probably keep the agency from doing anything that Republicans or Democrats will truly love; moderation is probably the reality for the next two years.

( categories: FCC | NSA/Telco Wiretap Scandal )