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'China's Not Waiting'

House Communications Members Target Senate Over FCC Auction Authority Lapse

A Friday House Communications Subcommittee hearing intended to jump-start negotiations on a comprehensive spectrum legislative package touched on some of those policy issues, but subpanel members used it as a bully pulpit to blast the Senate for failing to prevent the FCC’s frequency auction authority from expiring Thursday, as expected (see 2303090074). The House gaveled out Friday for a recess scheduled to end March 22. Senate leaders and Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who disagreed about dueling bills to renew the commission’s mandate (see 2303080081), expect to return to negotiations this week.

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House Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and other Communications members emphasized during and after the hearing that the onus for ending the stalemate rests entirely with the Senate, and implicitly with Rounds. The House passed a bill in February to renew the FCC’s authority through May 19 (HR-1108), which “would have given Congress enough time to come to an agreement on a more comprehensive package,” Rodgers said. “For reasons unknown to me, certain senators decided to risk U.S. wireless leadership over a date change,” an allusion to Rounds’ bill to instead extend the remit through Sept. 30 (S-650).

The Senate’s only option on the table right now to get this back on track” is to “swiftly pass” HR-1108, Rodgers said. Rounds objected last week to Senate leaders’ bid to pass that measure by unanimous consent (UC), while Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., blocked Rounds’ push for similar passage of S-650. “The House did its work” via HR-1108, said House Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J.: “Our legislation would have prevented this lapse in authority” and “I am disappointed that the Senate did not pass” it.

We’ve got to move forward” and reach a solution, though the only one with a realistic short-term chance of restoring the FCC’s authority is for the Senate to pass HR-1108 by UC, House Communications Chairman Bob Latta, R-Ohio, said in an interview. The House won’t return for more than a week, and it’s unclear whether the chamber would be able to approve an alternate bill without a floor vote, lobbyists said. “We can’t have the U.S. falling behind” on spectrum leadership and “China’s not waiting” as aren't other foreign adversaries, Latta said. He emphasized during the hearing the importance of setting the stage for lawmakers to reach a quick deal on a broader package, questioning whether the U.S. “can survive on short-term extensions” of the FCC’s authority.

We know where we are, we know what we need to do,” House Communications ranking member Doris Matsui, D-Calif., told us. “The Senate has to figure out what they’re going to do” and maybe the chamber “will start realizing how important” it is to reach a solution. “I think we’re going to have to rely on” Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and other “veterans over there who know how important” the FCC’s mandate is to broker a solution. “Simply put, this is a failure,” Matsui said during the hearing. “It was a completely avoidable failure” that stems partially from senators “receiving conflicting messages from the executive branch,” which is “a problem that has been plaguing administrations of both parties for years.”

CTIA Executive Vice President Brad Gillen and other witnesses also lamented the FCC remit’s lapse. The FCC no longer having “the basic tool to run auctions” is “an unfortunate thing,” Gillen told lawmakers, so “we need to get” that authority back as soon as possible.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel urged Congress Friday to "quickly" restore the agency's auction authority. That mandate "has been an indispensable tool for harnessing the promise of new wireless technologies while also spurring economic growth, creating jobs, and strengthening our national security and global leadership," she said: "Our auctions have proven to be an enormous engine for market innovation and the flourishing internet ecosystem, and for expanding the reach of next-generation connectivity to everyone, everywhere."

Rodgers, Matsui and others focused in part on continued tensions among the FCC, NTIA and other federal agencies on spectrum policy. They cited some DOD officials’ misgivings about repurposing parts of the 3.1-3.45 GHz band for commercial use, which is driving Rounds’ concerns about renewing the FCC’s auction authority through May 19 and his objection to a scuttled December spectrum legislative package (see 2212200077). “We need to restore the spectrum management process,” Rodgers said: “NTIA must be at the helm in order to maximize efficient spectrum use” and the decisions it and the FCC make as expert agencies “need to be respected by all agencies and industry as final.”

Latta and Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, cited work to include language in a spectrum package allocating some auction revenue to cover the $3.08 billion shortfall in the FCC’s needed funding to fully reimburse participants in the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., was among several lawmakers who eyed how a legislative package should address sharing frameworks given existing experiences on the citizens broadband radio service band and other frequencies.