Proposed Changes in Telecom Law

Capital B

Capital B (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two bills just made it out of the Communications and Technology subcommittee of the House of Representatives. There are so few bills making it to the floor these days that it’s interesting to see two telecom bills being moved forward. Especially since both are on a bipartisan basis.

The first bill is a revised version of the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act, H.R. 3675, which replaces an earlier version of the proposed law. This bill would make a number of changes at the FCC. The bill was heralded yesterday as bringing additional transparency to the workings of the FCC.

First it would change the rulemaking process. It would require all notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRMs) to allow 60 days for public comments before issuance. The FCC currently gives the public an opportunity to comment on the content and structure of an NPRM about one third of the time. Having followed FCC NPRM’s for years, this move seems aimed at slowing down the process. The FCC has generally asked for public input for major rule changes before issuing an NPRM. But the FCC also issues a number of NPRMs that are more procedural or which make minor amendments to rules and this new proposed process would slow down those more minor rule changes. Of course, it’s hard to argue about giving the public more input, but in this case the change gives them more input to the document that is asking for public input rather than to the actual factual proceeding. The public has always had the opportunity to respond to any NPRM once issued, but now they will get a chance to first comment on the format and questions asked by any NPRM before it is issued.

The bill also would require that there would have to be a broader review of any rule change that is expected to have an economic impact of $100M or more. This review would come from other government agencies who want to chime in on the change. This also will add time to the process of allowing the FCC to make major changes and my reading of this bill in general is that it sounds good in intent, but my gut tells me that this is a backdoor attempt to slow then FCC down from making any major changes. There are those in Congress who have been advocating removing most of the FCC’s responsibilities, and if you can’t stop the FCC, then I guess it’s okay to just slow them down.

The subcommittee also approved a bill H.R. 3674, the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act. This bill is aimed at freeing up more cellular frequency in the lower spectrum ranges. It provides both incentives and processes to move government and other users off of certain frequencies in order to provide more bandwidth for cellular telephone usage.

The main provision of the law is that it would allow government agencies that are currently using spectrum in certain ranges the ability to take a cut of any auction proceeds coming from the sale of that spectrum for commercial use.

There was a similar bill passed in 2012 which gave incentives for TV stations willing to give up their spectrum using a tool which is called a reverse auction. This bill would give about 1% of the proceeds of an auction sale to any agency that gave up the spectrum. The bill handles the mechanics by creating a new Federal Spectrum Incentive Fund which would hold auction proceeds until qualifying agencies could qualify for the funds.

These incentive funds are a good idea in that they free up frequency that is badly needed by cellular providers. Most of the frequencies involved are below 1 GHz, and these are the frequencies that can be used to carry a cellular signal for a long distance. These spectrums are necessary if the country wants to use cellular frequencies to bring more data to rural areas. In urban areas the carriers can use higher frequencies because the towers in those areas are already fairly close together. But it’s only economical to provide cell coverage in rural areas if the spectrum can carry for long distances from each transmitter.

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