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NENA Wants NG-911 Commitment

Senate Hearing Will Likely Contrast Dueling Cantwell, Cruz Spectrum Plans

A Thursday Senate Commerce Committee hearing is likely to highlight stark differences between panel leaders’ competing proposals for a spectrum legislative package, including whether it should mandate sales of specific bands before NTIA completes studies of those frequencies in keeping with the Biden administration’s national spectrum strategy (see 2403120006). Lawmakers’ apparent failure to reach a deal allocating additional money for the FCC’s affordable connectivity program and Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program (see 2403190062) as part of a FY 2024 still-unreleased “minibus” spending package also ratchets up the pressure for a spectrum bill to use future auction revenue to pay for multiple telecom priorities, officials and lobbyists told us.

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Senate Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee Chairman Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., wouldn’t confirm whether the FY24 minibus package omits ACP and rip and replace funding. “If that’s the case, I’m extremely disappointed we were not able to get it done,” he told us. “We’re going to have to redouble our efforts. The source of the funding is pretty clear -- it would be from the auction proceeds.” Congressional leaders still hadn’t released the FY24 minibus text Wednesday afternoon.

I’ve not seen final text” for the FY24 minibus, but “there’s always options that are on the table” for allocating ACP and rip-and-replace funding, said Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M. “I’m also hearing positive things about spectrum possibilities” from Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and other lawmakers. “You’ll still see members continue to push through the week to get something done,” he said. Lujan hopes the Thursday hearing will show “there’s agreement that this is a priority such that it will get the floor time that it deserves in a timely fashion.”

The proposal Cantwell is likely to reference Thursday would restore the FCC’s lapsed spectrum auction authority for five years but wouldn’t mandate that the commission sell licenses for specific bands, lobbyists told us. The Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the proposal (see 2403140066) valued a clean five-year restoration of the FCC’s mandate at $12 billion-$15 billion, lobbyists said. That would allow Congress to use a “bridge” loan to advance the FCC money to keep ACP running for a year, the full $3.08 billion needed to fully fund rip and replace and provide at least a “down payment” for next-generation 911 tech upgrades, one telecom lobbyist said.

Thune Concerns

Senate Communications ranking member John Thune, R-S.D., told us he plans to tout the 2024 Spectrum Pipeline Act (S-3909) he and Commerce ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, filed earlier this month (see 2403110066) because it represents a stark contrast with Cantwell’s proposal. S-3909 would require NTIA to identify at least 2,500 MHz of midband spectrum the federal government can reallocate for nonfederal or shared use within the next five years. The measure would renew the FCC’s auction mandate through Sept. 30, 2027.

Cantwell “just wants to punt to the FCC,” while “we’ve actually drilled down and got a lot more specific than that” in S-3909, Thune said. “We can actually have a markup” on S-3909, which more fully “addresses” concerns Republicans have about the Biden administration seeking more studies of spectrum bands instead of moving forward to bring them into the pipeline for 5G and other commercial uses. “Obviously [Cantwell’s] got the gavel,” so it’s her prerogative to decide what measure she wants Senate Commerce to mark up, “but we think our approach is the correct one,” Thune said.

House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Bob Latta, R-Ohio, told us he saw Cantwell’s proposal "last week," but he and other Commerce Committee leaders “haven’t had any discussion” about whether they will back it as an alternative to the Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act (HR-3565) the panel advanced last year (see 2305240069). HR-3565 proposed using future auction revenue to fill the rip and replace funding gap and NG-911, among other priorities. “It’s important that we reach a bicameral agreement on this, but we also need to get something done,” he told us. “We can’t go another session without restoring the auction authority.”

National Emergency Number Association officials told us they’re carefully following which spectrum legislative plan Cantwell prioritizes and how their issues factor into the Thursday hearing. There’s been “bipartisan agreement” for years “that NG-911 would be paid for by FCC spectrum auction revenues,” so “we hope [Cantwell] will honor that agreement,” said Vice President-Government Affairs Jonathan Gilad. NENA would favor proposals that extend the FCC’s mandate for a longer period because a shorter-term renewal in which auctions might stack up could result in the frequencies up for sale not realizing “a more fair market value,” said CEO Brian Fontes. A longer-term renewal of five-to-seven years would give bidders more certainty to plan their spectrum investments and likely bid more for licenses.

NG-911, Wi-Fi Interests

NENA wants Senate Commerce members in both parties during the hearing to “reaffirm their commitment” to use future revenue on the technology, Gilad said. “It’s “good that there is a consensus that there should be universal broadband” connectivity, but if that happens “but not NG-911, it will be the equivalent of 911 using a Palm Pilot when everyone else around them use[s] an iPhone 15.” NENA asked allies on the panel to raise the matter. “I would find it disappointing if it wasn’t brought up,” he said. Group members previously emphasized the funding issue as a priority during late-February meetings with lawmakers and congressional aides (see 2402260074).

Fontes and Gilad cited a letter ex-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and other former commission heads wrote congressional leaders in February urging swift action to allocate $15 billion for NG-911 funding (see 2402210073). “I can't stress how unusual that type of letter was” given it showed bipartisan agreement on an appropriations matter, Gilad said: “It should wake up the Congress that this needs to happen now.” The “need is urgent,” Fontes said. “We are with each passing day moving further and further and further behind what is available to consumers at their fingertips.”

WifiForward Executive Director Mary Brown told us she's “not planning on backing a particular approach” to spectrum legislation when she testifies at the Thursday hearing. Also on the docket: Hudson Institute Center for the Economics of the Internet Director Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a Republican former FCC commissioner; University of Notre Dame professor Monisha Ghosh, a former FCC chief technology officer; Center for Strategic and International Studies senior fellow Clete Johnson; and Open Radio Access Network Coalition Executive Director Diane Rinaldo, a former acting NTIA administrator.

I think we need to have a very strategic conversation about what we want connectivity to look like in the middle part of the 21st century,” Brown said. “We are looking at broadband speeds increasing substantially by the middle part of this century and if we put today's Wi-Fi at the edge of those networks, Wi-Fi will be a choke point, Wi-Fi will be a disincentive to invest.” If the U.S. wants “to be a very potent force, with an innovation economy and strong broadband, we also need to consider how we're using our spectrum-based technologies to supplement that” and question “how are we providing for Wi-Fi?” she said. “I think we're right now ... on the right track … to have the best broadband platforms the world has ever seen” because of “investments we're making in” NTIA’s broadband equity, access and deployment program, among other things, but there needs to be “a serious evaluation.”