FCC noms weigh in on broadband programs, data caps at Senate hearing

A Senate committee this week convened a hearing for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nominees, asking them pertinent questions about topics like federal broadband programs and the impact of data caps.

Those in attendance were Commissioners Brendan Carr and Geoffrey Starks, both up for renomination, as well as Fara Damelin, who was nominated as FCC Inspector General, and Anna Gomez, whom President Biden just tapped to fill the empty FCC seat.

The FCC last month released the second iteration of its national broadband map, which reflects provider-submitted data as of December 31, 2022. The updated map is important because that’s what the NTIA will use to determine allocations for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Those allocations are expected to be announced next week.

Asked by Senator Peter Welch about how the FCC will ensure mapping is accurate, Carr said that work will involve continued collaboration with state broadband offices.

“I’ve met with at least nine state broadband offices right now to continue to improve what’s going to be iterative,” he said. “But the advances we made, particularly from new version one to new version two are quite substantial.”

Another concern Congress brought up is the “fragmentation” of federal broadband efforts. Senator Todd Young of Indiana cited data from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found there are over 130 federal broadband programs administered by 15 different agencies.

“We need to streamline and synchronize our broadband programs to make sure that the left hand’s talking to the right hand – and in this case for now that means over 130 hands,” said Young.

Carr, Starks and Gomez all expressed support for the senator’s notion. One piece of legislation that would bolster interagency coordination, Carr noted, is the PLAN for Broadband Act introduced last August.

“[It] would put in place a national coordinating strategy, I think that’s one important step that has to take place as well as permitting reform,” he said. “If we’re just spending these dollars without doing permitting reform, then we’re stepping on the gas and brakes at the same time.”

“You also need the right workforce in place to build out everywhere,” added Starks, who pointed out the U.S. has a “historic amount of buildout that’s going to be needed.”

Gomez also pointed to “the importance of oversight and technical assistance.”

“Because all of this funding is going mostly to the states, and NTIA has a lot of lessons and guidance they can provide on effectively overseeing grant programs, even the workforce discussions that we’ve had as well as permitting,” she said.

Data caps

On June 15, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel circulated an order to investigate how broadband providers use data caps on consumer plans and the impact usage limits may have on competition or broadband accessibility.

North Carolina senator Ted Budd asked Gomez if she thinks “taking legal action to ban usage-based pricing” is a form of rate regulation.

Gomez admitted while she wasn’t familiar with the notice Rosenworcel put out, she considers rate regulation as that which involves “tariffs and price caps and rate of return regulation.”

“That is certainly not something I think is necessary today. I think competition is the best regulator of prices,” she said.

Budd then suggested a hypothetical scenario: What would happen if the FCC opted to ban usage-based pricing?

“It’s my view that we always need to be careful about unintended adverse effects,” replied Gomez. “And it’s something that, if confirmed, I would want to make sure that we understand if the FCC has any items placed before it…the commissioners have to see items and review items that may affect downstream services.”

Carr also weighed in on the subject, saying regulating usage-based pricing “would effectively amount to rate regulation.”

“Let’s say for instance you have a $30 data cap plan that’s affordable for somebody, or a $60 or $70 unlimited plan,” he said. “For the FCC to come in and outlaw that $30 offering – it certainly seems to me a lot like rate regulation.”