Lowenstein: My view of top priorities for the new FCC

Mark Lowenstein

When the Biden administration takes over in January 2021, the FCC will sport a new chairman and a 3-2 Democratic majority. In this column, I’d like to offer my views on what I think the FCC’s top priorities should be and what might be some strategies for fulfilling some of these objectives.

First, a quick review of the FCC during the Trump years with Ajit Pai as Chairman. This was an active FCC that can point to some important accomplishments. Most notably, Pai’s FCC put the United States in a much more favorable position with regard to spectrum, overseeing five successful auctions and a roadmap that will take us from an era of spectrum scarcity to one of spectrum abundance by mid-decade. The FCC has also, during Covid, placed some needed attention on narrowing the Broadband Gap, the first step of which is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction (Phase I). It will be up to Biden’s FCC to ensure the continuation of this project and its successful implementation.

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Pai, and the White House, were also directional in focusing greater attention on China. This was a miss during the Obama/Wheeler years. One can debate whether some of the tactics were overly extreme (certainly the tone was). But there’s little question that China has engaged in some egregious behavior and is a force to be reckoned with in areas of technology that are key to economic and political competitive advantage in this decade, such as 5G and AI.

On the fail front, the rapid overturning of net neutrality at the outset of the Trump Administration was clearly driven by the White House. Section 230 has become the most damaging expression of this failure. The 1996 Telecom Act never anticipated the role of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in fomenting misinformation, and worse. I believe the continued seesawing on net neutrality, going for nearly 10 years now, could ultimately result in this issue being taken away from the FCC and decided in the legislative branch (more later).

And now, for the new FCC. It will be a 3-2 Democratic majority (at least to start), with a new Republican-appointed Commissioner Nathan Simington likely to be approved this week and a new chairperson appointed by President Biden. I give it at a 40% chance that the President-elect will name Jessica Rosenworcel as the new chair. There’s little question, judging from some of her recent statements and Twitter stream that she’s applying for the job. Republicans won’t be thrilled. How quickly this new FCC is fully in place is a matter of some stickiness and uncertainty, depending, in part, on the outcome of the Senate runoffs in Georgia.

I think the new FCC should, and will, prioritize on universal broadband. The urgency of this issue has been made abundantly clear by the Covid pandemic. It’s also the closest we might get to an objective that could actually have a healthy level of bipartisan support. So, it could be a good ‘early win’ for a new Biden administration. Tens of billions have been spent on this cause since the now 10-year-old Obama-era National Broadband Plan was released. Success has been middling – a combination of erroneous data, poor oversight/execution, and technology that was not quite there yet. But there are many more tools in the toolbox now, including mobile/FWA legitimately in the conversation for some locations and use cases. And the dollars should be there. To start, Biden’s FCC will inherit a $10 billion allocation from the increasingly likely new Stimulus plan. Some proceeds from the gazillions that are going to be raised in the C-band auction could also go a long way toward helping fund some of these initiatives.

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Another issue I’d like the FCC to tackle is affordability. Let’s agree that every individual should have a phone (most likely a cell phone), and every household a broadband connection. This combination is still a tough nugget for anyone with an income below the middle class to afford, and Covid is likely to put many millions more into this unfortunate category in the coming months. Chairman Pai was directionally correct in calling out historic programs such Lifeline for fraud and waste. But he went too far in nearly gutting some of these programs. The FCC needs to come up with a modernized approach to this, with more effective oversight. Broadband availability, universal service, and affordability are all part of the same package of needs. One way to "sell" this effectively is to categorize universal, affordable broadband as a key piece of a national infrastructure plan, which could be among the lowest pieces of potential bipartisan fruit in a still-divided Congress.

I would also like to see the FCC coordinate more effectively with other branches and departments (the White House, Justice, State, Defense) on matters of industrial policy. Cyberthreats and issues such as how to deal with China were dealt with in a piecemeal, stove-pipe fashion during the Trump administration, which resulted in DOA ideas such as a National 5G Network. Some issues that were once squarely within the FCC’s jurisdiction have now been elevated to national economic, political, and military importance. A strong FCC can play an important role in developing a more cohesive strategy on issues that will transcend agencies and departments.

Saving the stickiest for last, the FCC will surely be involved in the already-in-motion Congressional investigations and suits involving Big Tech, ranging from anti-trust to data privacy to free speech. These issues are interrelated and span multiple federal jurisdictions. Columns could be written about each of these, so perhaps it’s better to step back and look at the bigger picture. Whether it’s network neutrality, Section 230, or issues of industry structure in communications, e-commerce, digital advertising, cloud, and pay TV (cable, streaming, and the like), the times are calling for a revamp of the 1996 Telecom Act. Multiple segments of communications and tech have developed (and overlap) in a way that has become difficult, if not impossible, to apply through the lens of an Act that will turn 25 next year.

This would be a big deal to take on, and given so many other urgent priorities, plus the near stalemate in Washington, I can’t imagine the FCC and friends having the wherewithal, the currency, or the stomach to take it on. But that shouldn’t preclude the conversation from at least starting when the new Administration takes over in 2021.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.