The FCC Process

I recently wrote a blog that discussed the possibility that the FCC would change the definition of the speed that constitutes broadband. I got a number of inquiries from readers asking how this could happen outside of the scope of the formal rulemaking process. Specifically, I had reported on the rumor that the FCC was likely to make this decision by February 3, which is not one of the dates when the FCC formally holds open meetings and votes on changes to FCC rules. Today I’m going to try to shed some light on how the FCC makes decisions, which will hopefully clarify the issue.

The FCC has several paths to make decisions. The one that the industry is most familiar with is the rulemaking process. The basic process for rulemaking for all administrative government agencies was created with the Administrative Procedure Act in 1946. This Act defined a process of changing federal rules that mandates getting feedback from the public.

The FCC might consider changing rules for several reasons. Some rule changes are mandated by Congress, with one of the more recent such FCC actions being in response to changes in consumer privacy rules. The FCC can also start a rulemaking in response to a petition asking for a clarification of the rules. In the past such petitions often came from the large carriers or else from state regulators. Finally, the FCC can simply identify an industry problem on their own and begin the rulemaking process to seek possible solutions.

The FCC then has several tools available to facilitate the rulemaking process:

  • One tool available to the FCC is the NOI (Notice of Inquiry). This can be done when the FCC is trying to understand an issue and the possible solutions.
  • But the NOI process is not mandatory and the agency can move directly to an NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking). This is a formal document that proposes specific rule changes. There is a defined minimum timeline for this process that includes time for the public to comment and for a second round of reply comments, if needed. During this process the FCC might allow ex parte meetings from interested parties, hold public meetings to solicit feedback or engage with industry experts to get feedback on their proposals.
  • Finally, some dockets proceed to an FNPRM (Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking). This tool is used when the comments on an NPRM cause the FCC to consider a different solution than what they originally proposed. This also then goes through the public comment process.

But not everything done at the FCC goes through the rulemaking process. For example, one of the mandated functions of the FCC is acting to adjudicate industry disputes. Industry parties that disagree on the interpretation of existing FCC rules can ask the agency to clarify – and in the case the agency takes on a nearly judicial role in looking at the facts of a specific case.

Finally, the FCC has a major administrative function. The agency has to make numerous policy decisions in order to meet its mandates from Congress. A simple way to think about this is that the rulemaking process creates formal rule changes. But then the agency must develop the processes and policies to make the new rules function. The FCC spends a lot of time on these administrative functions. For example, holding auctions for spectrum is an administrative function. Deciding how to fund and administer the Universal Service Fund is an administrative function. Approving new telecom and wireless devices is an administrative function.

The decision in the past to define the speed of broadband was an administrative decision. The agency has wide discretion to arbitrarily define administrative rules, but they often ask for public feedback.

The speed of broadband has been discussed at the FCC in several different contexts. First, the FCC has administered several grant programs and they decided that it was in the public good to set minimum broadband speeds for various grant programs. For example, the CAF II program requires the large telcos to deploy technology that delivers at least 10/1 Mbps. But there have been other speed requirements for other grant programs and the ‘experimental grants’ of a few years ago looked to fund technologies that delivered at least 100 Mbps download.

But the primary reason that the FCC decided they needed to define broadband using speeds was due to a mandate from Congress for the FCC is to report once per year on the state of broadband in the country. The Congress wants to know how many people have, or do not have broadband. Past FCCs decided that a definition of broadband was needed in order to create a meaningful report to Congress. They initially set the definition of broadband at 10/1 Mbps and later raised it to 25/3 Mbps. And they purposefully have excluded cellular broadband as not being broadband.

In anticipation of each annual broadband report the FCC sometimes asks questions of the public. They did so last year in an NOI where they asked if the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband is too high. And they asked if cellular broadband ought to now be counted as broadband. This NOI is issued only for factfinding and to solicit public opinion on the topic. But the speed of broadband is an administrative decision of the agency, meaning that there are not formal rules associated with setting or changing the definition of broadband. The agency is free to make changes at any time to these kinds of administrative definitions. In the past the definition of broadband speeds was included with the annual broadband reports issued to Congress. And the anticipation is that the agency will use this same mechanism this year. There is no formal docket open on the topic and thus no formal and public vote is required. The FCC might or might not change the definition of broadband, but as my blog conjectured, the consensus of industry experts is that they are likely to do so. But we’ll have to wait for the annual broadband report to see if they actually lower the definition of broadband speeds or add cellular data to the definition.

FCC to Investigate MDU Broadband

The FCC is launching an investigation into anticompetitive practices that are keeping broadband from coming to apartments and other multi-tenant buildings. They have issued a Notice of Inquiry in Docket in GN Docket 17-142 looking into the topic and are expected later this month to formally release it to the public. The docket specifically looks at barriers to competition in what the FCC is calling MTEs – multiple tenant environments, which includes apartments, condominiums, shopping malls and cooperatively owned buildings.

This is not the first time that the FCC has tackled the topic. Back in 2008 the commission banned some contractual arrangements that gave incumbent ISPs unfair advantage over competitors. However, that order didn’t go far enough, and ISPs basically shifted to arrangements that were not banned by the FCC. The FCC is looking into the topic because it’s become obvious that exclusive arrangements are harming the introduction of faster broadband into a sizable portion of the market. There are cities where half or more of residents live in apartments and don’t have the same competitive choices as those living in single family homes.

The FCC has an interesting legal challenge in looking at this issue. This docket specifically looks at the potential for regulating broadband access in MTEs, something that the FCC has the authority to do under Title II regulation. But assuming that the FCC moves forward this year with plans to scrap Title II regulation they might also be eliminating their authority to regulate MTEs in the manner suggested by the NOI. If they decide to act on the issue it will be interesting to see how they define their authority to regulate anything that is broadband related. That might be our first glimpse at what a regulatory regime without Title II looks like.

Further, Chairman Ajit Pai has shown a strong preference to lighten the regulations on ISPs and you have to wonder if he is willing to really tackle a new set of regulations. But he’s faced with the dilemma faced by all regulators in that sometimes the market will not automatically produce the results that are beneficial to society and sometimes regulations are the only way to get corporations and others to behave in the way that benefits everybody. It’s clear that residents in MTEs have little or no competition and choice and new regulations might be the only way to get it for them.

The NOI looks at specific issues related to MTE broadband competition:

  • It asks if the FCC should consider overriding state and local regulations that inhibit the deployment of broadband in MTEs. Some jurisdictions have franchising and other rules that make it hard for a smaller competitor to try to serve only MTEs or parts of markets.
  • It asks if the FCC should prohibit exclusive marketing and bulk billing arrangements by ISPs.
  • It asks if the FCC should prohibit revenue sharing and exclusive wiring arrangements with ISPs.
  • It asks if there are other kinds on non-contractual practices that should be prohibited or regulated.

The NOI is interesting in that it tackles all of the topics that the FCC left untouched in 2008. When that order came out I remember thinking about all of the loopholes the FCC had left available to ISPs that wanted to maintain an exclusive arrangement with apartment owners. For example, bulk billing arrangements are where a landlord buys wholesale connections from an ISP and then includes broadband or cable TV as part of the rent, at a mark-up. Landlords under such arrangements are unlikely to allow in another competitor since they are profiting from the exclusive arrangement. The FCC at the time didn’t feel ready to tackle the issues associated with regulating landlord behavior.

The NOI asks for comments on the non-contractual issues that prohibit competition. I’ve seen many such practices in the marketplace. For instance, a landlord may tell tenants that they are pro-competition and that they allow access to multiple ISPs, but then charge exorbitant fees to ISPs for gaining access to buildings or for wanting to collocate electronics or to run wiring. I can think of dozens of different roadblocks that I’ve seen that effectively keep out competitors.

I am heartened a bit by this docket in that it’s the first thing this new FCC has done to solve a problem. Most of the work they’ve done so far is to dismantle old rules to reduce regulation. There is nothing wrong with that in general and I have my own long shopping list of regulations that are out of date or unnecessary. But there are industry issues like this one where regulation is the only way to provide a needed fix to a problem. It’s clear that large ISPs and many landlords have no interest in bringing competition to their buildings. And if that is a goal that the FCC wants to foster, then they are going to have to create the necessary regulations to make it happen – even if they prefer to not regulate.