Reauthorizing the FCC

FCC_New_LogoSenator John Thune (republican from South Dakota and head of the Senate Commerce Committee) has introduced a reauthorization bill for the FCC. This hasn’t been done at the FCC for nearly 25 years but is a routine process for most federal agencies. The authorization bill would reestablish a fresh basis for how the FCC operates and is funded. As long as controversial riders don’t get attached such as trying to undo net neutrality or something similar, the bill ought to sail through Congress and get signed by the president.

The reauthorization is only for two years, which signals Congress’s intent to tackle a new telecommunications act in the near future. Here are a few things the bill will do if passed:

Examine FCC Regulatory Fees. The FCC charges regulatory fees and the bill would authorize the GAO to take a look at how those fees line up with the costs of running the FCC. Since this hasn’t been examined in a long time it’s easy to imagine fees being added, deleted, or modified to bring the fees in line with current activity and costs of running the FCC.

The FCC charges a number of different kinds of fees. For instance there are fees for processing applications for equipment approval, tariff filings, antenna site registration and other similar functions. The FCC also charges a host of annual regulatory fees to cable television systems, wireless carriers, satellite providers, interstate telco providers, media companies and submarine cable network owners. The agency also charges fees to participate in spectrum auctions.

Protects E-Rate Funding. The bill would shield E-Rate payments made to schools and libraries from being lowered due to any other government funding action, such as last year’s sequester.

Changes FCC Transparency Practices. The Commerce committee oversees a number of other government agencies such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Surface Transportation Board, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Over the last decade those agencies have had changes in how documents at the agencies are made public and how they report to Congress. The FCC is the only agency that has not been subject to these transparency best practices. However, earlier this year the FCC started to voluntarily make some of these changes on their own.

Clarifies USF Support Rules. In 2004 the USF Joint Board recommended that a household only count for calculating universal service funding one time. This means that a household can’t count for calculating a subsidy for both a wireline and a wireless connection. Congress has been renewing this requirement in the annual funding appropriation for the FCC every year since then and this would codify that restriction to be permanent.

Clarifies Terms of Office for Commissioners. The bill would allow a Commissioner to stay in office after their 5-year term until a successor has been appointed. This has sometimes been done in practice, but this would make this a permanent rule.

Continues Funding for Spectrum Auctions. The bill assures that the FCC will be sufficiently funded to operate spectrum auctions, which often brings in huge revenues to the general government coffers.

The bill is expected to be voted on in the Commerce Committee by the end of March. The danger between now and becoming a law is going to be the temptation of Republicans to use the bill as a way to change a few FCC rules that they don’t like. The two recent FCC rulings they most hate are net neutrality and the rules that ban states from restricting municipal participation in broadband. Both of those FCC rules are under appeal in federal courts, but a number of congressmen have never stopped publicly complaining against the rulings. If the bill gets riders that try to change those rulings it would probably be impossible to get a presidential signature since President Obama strongly supports both of those FCC rulings.

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