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Chairman Pai Begins Reforming FCC; Hits ‘Reset’ Button

February 14, 2017  —

By J. Sharpe Smith

Senior Editor, eDigest

J. Sharpe SmithChairman Ajit Pai began reforming the commission’s processes last week, essentially bringing some power back to the FCC Commissioners from the bureaus. Chairman Pai, who was on the losing end of numerous 3-2 decisions during the Wheeler era, is moving quickly to assert his power in the new commission, according to Wes Wright, partner, Keller Heckman.

“Chairman Pai and Comm. O’Reilly thought that the Bureaus were perhaps getting a little too involved in policymaking,” Wright said. As a result of the actions control will be much more concentrated on the eighth floor [the location of the commissioners’ offices] for now with the political appointees.”

In one action, Chairman Pai released a statement that essentially said any fine coming out of the Enforcement Bureau must be approved by a vote of the full Commission.

The inspiration behind the change was the belief at the FCC and on Capitol Hill that the Enforcement Bureau was more concerned with trying to grab headlines and less concerned with actually collecting the fines.

One example is when the Enforcement Bureau fined AT&T $100 million for throttling data rates, which grabbed headlines but probably won’t be paid by the carrier. (It publicly said it wouldn’t pay.) Reining in those fines will make them less political and more effective, according to Wright.

“The amount of forfeitures will go down, and may go down significantly,” he said. “Certainly, a higher percentage is going to be collected because the fines will be issued from the Bureau less to make policy and less to randomly scare certain industries.”

The resulting items coming out of the Enforcement Bureau will be fully vetted and treated more seriously by the Commission.

“From an industry perspective, you are less likely to be randomly targeted by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau,” Wright said. “At the same time, if you do find yourself in the bureau’s crosshairs you are more likely to pay.”

Related to the Chairman’s statement on Enforcement Bureau activity, Pai stripped all the bureaus’ ability to make substantive changes to items after they have been approved by the Commission, known as editorial privileges. From now on, bureau personnel will only be able to make grammatical changes after a Commission vote.

“Initially, this change will slow the process down because the staff will need to iron out more of the issues before the item makes it to the FCC agenda,” Wright said.

Chairman Pai may loosen the reins on the Commission in time as the staff becomes accustom to his expectations and management style. But in the meantime, expect a more centralized decision making process at the FCC.

FCC Chairman Proposes Field Office Modernization

By J. Sharpe Smith —

June 18, 2015 — FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated a plan to reorganize the agency’s field offices to his fellow commissioners last week, attempting to increase the efficiency of the Commission. While not giving any details, the chairman hinted that his plan had been altered from the proposal that he presented to Congress last March.

“This updated plan represents the best of both worlds: rigorous management analysis combined with extensive stakeholder and congressional input,” he said in a statement. Wheeler said he received input from Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, and other lawmakers, industry and public safety officials, as well as the National Association of Broadcasters.

During the March 24 hearing on the FCC’s fiscal year 2016 budget request before Congress, Wheeler said the agency was studying the management of resources in field offices that had a one-manager-to-four-employee ratio and oversized rental facilities.

“After analyzing a contractor report on field office use, we have determined that we can more efficiently deploy staff using a ‘tiger team’ approach and make better use of regional offices,” Wheeler told the Appropriations committee.

Wheeler’s plan, at that time, included a substantial number of field office closures (16) and annual savings of $9 million.

“We will continue to seek efficiencies that allow the FCC to continue to perform its mission, but there are limitations,” he said. “Seeking even lower [full-time equivalent] levels could have adverse operational effects. While the Commission’s staffing and resources have been steadily shrinking, the industries we oversee have continued to grow at a healthy clip.”

Wheeler Rallies MUNIs to Support Streamlined Broadband Deployment

By J. Sharpe Smith —

Oct. 2, 2014 — Stepping into the lion’s den of a national gathering of municipal officials, FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler made an impassioned call for local governments to join the FCC in its efforts to facilitate the deployment of broadband wireless and wireline networks.

“I understand the very real and very strong not-in-my-backyard sentiments,” Wheeler said. “Everyone wants cell phone service but no one wants cell phone antennas in their neighborhood. Everyone wants access to state-of-the-art transmission service, but no one wants the neighborhood streets dug up. It reminds me of another folk song: ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.’”

In a keynote speech before the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors Annual Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, Oct. 1, the FCC chairman tied the need for high-speed broadband networks to national competitiveness, local choice and competition among providers.

“We’re talking about a national priority; about the maintenance of economic leadership; about America’s continuing to be the home of innovation,” he said. “We need faster networks in more places. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of seeing the charts of where the U.S. ranks in comparison to the broadband speeds of other nations. Table stakes for the 21st century is 25 Mbps, and winning the game means that all consumers can get at least 100 Mbps – and more.”

The obligation of local officials is to be proactive in facilitating the build out of wireless and wireline broadband networks, Wheeler said.

“Local officials with permitting authority have a special obligation to both their own communities and to the larger society,” he said. “If the infrastructure for both wired and wireless broadband networks doesn’t receive the prioritization that it warrants as a major national imperative, all the efforts to create faster, cheaper, better broadband service that will enhance our nation’s competiveness … will go for naught.”

The FCC will vote on a new set of federal policies aimed at streamlining the siting of wireless facilities at an Opening Meeting on Oct. 17, according to Wheeler.

Wheeler said the proposal will take concrete steps to “immediately and substantially ease the burdens associated with deploying wireless equipment,” particularly the collocations and deployments of small cells that can be installed “unobtrusively.”

It is believed that the Report and Order will be based on the rulemaking initiated in January 2013 to clarify Section 6409(a) of the tax act of 2012, which streamlines the deployment of certain wireless infrastructure. The legislation, which states that a locality “may not deny, and shall approve” a collocation request, has not yet been integrated into FCC regulations.

“At the FCC, we will use our authority to attack the broadband deployment challenge,” Wheeler said.

At the same time, Wheeler said he wants to preserve the frontline authority of local and tribal governments to determine which structures are appropriate for wireless deployment as well as the authority to enforce building codes and electrical codes and to require the use of concealment designs.

“You have the ability to develop national best practices that embrace strategies that have been shown to work in today’s technological and economic environments – strategies that embrace new technology and new ideas to facilitate the timely deployment of wired and wireless broadband,” he said. “We will work with you, so that national best practices are included in our “Agenda for Broadband Competition…the ABCs of consumer choice in the 21st century.’”

Jonathan Kramer, a municipal consultant with Telecom Law Firm, was cautious in his reaction to Wheeler’s speech.

“The chairman made clear that the commission sees an important continuing role for state, local and tribal governments to play in wireless tower siting, but it appears that that role will be somewhat less than has existed up to now: How much less will determine whether governments retain an important role, or feel that they have just been rolled,” Kramer said. “We’re all looking forward to October 17th when we learn how the Commission’s regulatory vision will, we hope, fairly balance the expedited deployment of wireless services with the preservation of important local community values.”