FCC Spectrum Authority, NTIA Mandate, BEAD Concerns Draw Focus in House Hearing
Three House Communications Subcommittee priorities drew equal attention during a Tuesday hearing with NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson: leaders’ push for a wide-ranging spectrum legislative package, oversight of federal broadband spending, and renewed Hill interest in reauthorizing the agency’s mandate with an eye to addressing future policy issues. The hearing was partly a curtain-raiser for the Commerce Committee’s planned Wednesday markup of the newly filed Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act (HR-3565) and six broadband measures House Communications approved last week (see 2305170037).
HR-3565, which House Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., filed Monday, hews closely to some elements of the spectrum package that both leaders and members of the Senate Commerce Committee failed to attach to the FY 2023 appropriations omnibus law (see 2212190069). It retains language on planning for an auction of spectrum on the 3.1-3.45 GHz band and major allocations of proceeds to pay for telecom priorities: up to $14.8 billion for next-generation 911 tech upgrades, up to $3.08 billion to pay back a loan to fully fund the FCC's Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program and up to $5 billion for middle-mile projects previously included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
HR-3565 makes some changes from the December package. It would reauthorize the FCC’s spectrum auction authority through Sept. 30, 2026, instead of the previously proposed deadline of Sept. 30, 2025. It sets a deadline for the FCC to hold a 3.1-3.45 GHz auction for Jan. 15, 2028, instead of June 15, 2027. The measure no longer allocates up to $200 million of auction proceeds to pay for NTIA’s Telecommunications Workforce Training Grant Program. It also jettisons language on NTIA reauthorization, Spectrum Relocation Fund modernization and the text of the Improving Minority Participation And Careers in Telecommunications Act.
The House Commerce markup docket also includes the American Broadband Deployment Act (HR-3557), which Communications advanced over uniform Democratic objections; Facilitating the Deployment of Infrastructure with Greater Internet Transactions and Legacy Applications Act (HR-3283); Expediting Federal Broadband Deployment Reviews Act (HR-3293); Deploying Infrastructure with Greater Internet Transactions and Legacy Applications Act (HR-3299); Standard Fees to Expedite Evaluation and Streamlining Act (HR-3309); and Federal Broadband Deployment Tracking Act (HR-3343). Wednesday's meeting will begin at 10 a.m. in 2123 Rayburn.
Rodgers, Pallone and others at Tuesday's House Communications hearing noted the implications of continuing to allow the FCC’s mandate to remain lapsed. Rodgers questioned whether, if the FCC’s authority “still remains expired” at the time of the Nov. 20-Dec. 15 World Radiocommunication Conference, that would put the U.S. “at a disadvantage” in deliberations. “I am concerned that this lapse will cause us to lose footing on the international stage,” Pallone said. “Congress designated NTIA as the manager of federal spectrum and we must put the disputes of the past behind us so government can speak with one unified voice in spectrum management decisions.” The U.S. has “strong leadership” guiding preparations for WRC and “we are going to make it work with or without spectrum auction authority, but boy we really believe” that is “something that would help us,” Davidson said.
Several former FCC chairmen, including Ajit Pai and Tom Wheeler, were among a group of 16 ex-commissioners who urged Congress Tuesday to “pass a bipartisan solution that reinstates the FCC’s spectrum auction authority and avoids the unnecessary threats to the thriving wireless ecosystem that we worked to support.” Failure “to renew the FCC’s spectrum auction authority augurs troubling consequences,” the former commissioners said in a letter to Rodgers, Pallone and Senate Commerce leaders. “Spectrum auction authority is a critical building block in the complex and time-consuming process to reallocate spectrum to new uses. Auction proceeds can fund government agencies to relocate bands with upgraded systems, helping to maintain U.S. global leadership in the wireless ecosystem. Delay in renewing auction authority risks ceding a global competitive advantage to other countries, particularly China.”
House Communications ranking member Doris Matsui, D-Calif., was among several lawmakers who pressed Davidson on NTIA’s progress on promised work on a national spectrum strategy. “We’re looking forward to” its release, she said. Matsui also invoked two of her discussion drafts on the subcommittee’s agenda. The Spectrum Relocation Enhancement Act would make changes to what relocation or sharing costs are eligible for reimbursement from the Spectrum Relocation Fund and alter how federal agencies receive payments from the program. Matsui’s Spectrum Coexistence Act would require NTIA to establish a working group to update criteria and other measures for federal radio receivers.
Davidson told lawmakers NTIA is on track for a “study that comes out towards the end of this year” that the agency is using an “evidence and science-based” process to develop. Officials are “identifying the particular bands” that will make up the hoped-for 1,500 MHz of frequency the federal government hopes to propose repurposing in the strategy, he said. Stakeholders divided sharply in April comments to the agency on whether the strategy’s primary focus should be exclusive licenses or reuse and sharing (see 2304180023).
Rodgers and other Republicans repeatedly hammered Davidson on NTIA’s implementation of IIJA’s $48 billion pot of connectivity money under its control, particularly the $42.5 billion broadband, equity, access and deployment (BEAD) program. “We are still waiting to hear about the accuracy of the newest version” of the FCC’s broadband coverage data maps, “which NTIA is supposed to use to ensure resources get to communities that need them most.” She and other lawmakers are “concerned by reports that the initial version of the maps was missing entire communities and inaccurately stating coverage in many areas.” NTIA “needs to make sure these concerns are resolved in the new map before it allocates money to states,” Rodgers said.
“We think that the map that the FCC is working on now is substantially improved” and will be a “much more accurate, much more granular map than we’ve ever had before,” Davidson said. NTIA believes the map, which the FCC is supposed to release in June, “will be a map that we’ll be able to use” to distribute BEAD funding. “It’s important that we move wisely in how we spend our funds but also with a sense of urgency, because we know that every week we wait is another week that people are not getting connected.
House Communications Chairman Bob Latta, R-Ohio, raised concerns about NTIA’s BEAD notice of funding opportunity, which Senate Commerce Republicans are pressing the agency to partially rewrite (see 2304200064). The NOFO appears to be “a wish list of items that conflict with the statute or increase the costs” of broadband deployment, he said: “These requirements could undermine the goal of connecting all Americans.” NTIA believes the NOFO gives states wide latitude to “make their choice about” what technologies they will preference for BEAD funding, Davidson said. “Some states will have a heavy preference, perhaps, for fiber. Other states will choose to use much more of a mix.”
Latta and other House Communications members invoked a range of bills they hope to include in a package led by the draft NTIA Reauthorization Act. That measure “would elevate the” NTIA administrator’s affiliated role as assistant Commerce secretary-communications and information “to an undersecretary level, modernize the agency’s policies and missions, and authorize its funding to match current funding levels,” Latta said. Other measures on the subpanel agenda included the draft Artificial Intelligence Accountability Act, draft Digital Economy Cybersecurity Advisory Act and draft FirstNet Reauthorization Act.