One of the most sweeping agencies of the federal government is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC): Its regulatory authority over the nation’s networks covers approximately one-sixth of the domestic economy. Of even greater relevance, however, is how the remainder of the economy relies on those networks and are thus affected by the policies of the FCC. The Brookings series “Build Back Better with Biden FCC” includes six installments to review issues that confront the agency today. Here is a review of the topics with links to each report:
The simple truth is that America’s networks are under attack. From ransomware to theft of personal information, to full out assaults on services and infrastructure, adversaries and criminals are engaged in cyber activities that utilize the commercial networks as their attack pathway. The FCC has both the responsibility and authority to protect those commercial networks. The Trump FCC turned a blind eye to many of its most important national security responsibilities. The Biden FCC can secure the telecommunications supply chain, insist the nation’s networks pursue cyber protection, and build a future in which policy evolves as cyber techniques evolve.
The COVID-19 pandemic graphically demonstrated the importance of America’s high-speed internet networks. Without such networks, for instance, children could not attend virtual classes, workers could not do their jobs, and healthcare providers could not reach out to patients. Yet approximately 42 million Americans lack access to broadband connections because they live in areas where the cost of construction is too high to incentivize private investment. Over the last decade the FCC has distributed approximately $40 billion to subsidize companies to expand into unserved areas – yet millions remain unserved. The Trump FCC talked about closing the digital divide but left the job undone. The Biden infrastructure initiative proposes to once and for all fund build out into unserved areas. The Biden FCC will play an important role.
While high-speed broadband deployment to all Americans needs to be a priority, the amazing fact is that more Americans have access to broadband but choose not to subscribe than Americans who have no access – principally because of cost. This means that 10 million students do not have broadband connections to their virtual classrooms, and 40 percent of seniors do not have broadband to help them with health issues. During the Reagan administration the FCC created the Lifeline fund to subsidize low-income Americans’ access to telephone service to call 9-1-1. Over the years, the FCC has tried with mixed results to adapt that program for broadband support. The Trump FCC actively engaged in weakening the Lifeline program and participation fell. The Biden FCC has the opportunity to right the situation, including working with the Congress on a new broadband subsidy program.
For 16 years both Republican and Democrat FCCs worked – over the opposition of the companies – to require that internet service providers (ISPs) deliver non-discriminatory access to their critical networks. Finally, in 2015, the Obama FCC developed a rule that withstood the lawsuits the companies filed against FCC action. As soon as the Trump FCC came into power, they repealed the rule and gave the broadband companies another victory. Network non-discrimination has been an underpinning of American telecommunications since the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860. Such non-discrimination was the basis of 19th century telegraph policy, 20th century telephone policy, and should similarly be key to 21st century internet policy. The Biden FCC has the opportunity to continue that policy by restoring non-discrimination expectations to the broadband networks.
The power of anywhere, anytime internet service comes from use of the electromagnetic spectrum to enable wireless services. The fifth generation wireless (5G) technology promises faster speeds and lower latencies to further increase the usability of wireless connections. Throughout the entire Trump administration there was no coordinated national spectrum policy. As a result, while the president and FCC Chairman talked about the “race to 5G,” the necessary spectrum was slow in coming. The Biden administration and the Biden FCC will need to do like the Obama administration did and identify a national goal for spectrum to be made available for wireless purposes. Since spectrum is a finite resource, the new allocations will need to come from reallocating spectrum that has previously been identified for other purposes. This is a sensitive, political, and economically-fraught undertaking that requires national leadership from the top.
One hundred days into the new administration there is a 2-2 deadlock on the five-person Commission. Until the president appoints, and the Senate confirms, the third Democrat for the panel, it will be difficult to move any controversial items. Included on such a list of items are those previously discussed (cybersecurity, broadband deployment and adoption, spectrum, and net neutrality) as well as important issues such as privacy, merger approval, and disability access to communications technology. There also hangs over the commission the legacy of the Trump effort to have the agency police the intent of social media companies – an effort that was aided by a general counsel’s opinion about the FCC’s authority that remains in effect.