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'Silent Cal'

Simington Has USF Concerns, Backs FCC on Maps

Commissioner Nathan Simington said finalizing new broadband data maps is a “very high priority” for FCC action. It's a “very thorny problem,” Simington said in an interview Wednesday. The FCC had to build out capacities that didn’t exist after Congress “passed the ball,” and acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is “working very hard to get it done,” he said. The commissioner has USF concerns and may be open to some changes.

Rosenworcel has been “very transparent and forthcoming” about sharing information with minority commissioners on upcoming FCC action, said Simington. Minority commissioners in past FCCs -- including both Rosenworcel and her predecessor Ajit Pai -- have traditionally complained about the chair not keeping them informed, but that isn’t the case at the current FCC, Simington said. He doesn’t know if that will change with a five-member commission: “I don’t think the acting chairwoman is just looking for a vote, I think she’s looking for agreement and looking for dialogue.” Simington doesn't expect that to change. Simington has regular virtual meetings with the other commissioners, he told us.

The commission's large number of unanimous decisions “speaks to the acting chairwoman’s ability to deliver a significant agenda even without a majority,” Simington said. Rosenworcel’s office didn’t comment. Most FCC business shouldn’t be characterized as partisan, Simington said.

Connectivity is “sticky,” Simington said, and those who previously didn’t support investing in broadband “may decide that it’s an item worth paying for” after seeing the impact of FCC’s COVID-19 programs. There will be many “subtle adjustments” once programs like the emergency broadband benefit and Emergency Connectivity Fund end, he said. Simington praised the Universal Service Administrative Co. for administering these programs and said it could be a “stepping stone” to getting more providers comfortable using USF long term.

Simington said the USF contribution factor is “out of control” and a “source of instability.” The USF could be funded through congressional appropriations, he said, but there’s already uncertainty every quarter and it “seems like a bad idea.” Expanding the contribution base instead may be more aligned with the USF’s original intention, he said, because the commission would be looking at the services connecting people. Simington didn’t dismiss Commissioner Brendan Carr’s proposal to have Big Tech contribute to the USF, and suggested it might be time to discuss whether data services should contribute (see 2106010041).

Simington's Style

Unlike other commissioners, Simington is often brief during commission meetings and releases few statements, deferring to his staff for meetings with industry or interest groups and businesses. That's according to our analysis of filings.

His “hear more than say more” attitude is intentional: “You can’t match the information-gathering capacities of going out there and talking to society groups,” Simington said: “I prefer a little bit of a 'Silent Cal' approach,” referring to President Calvin Coolidge who was known as a man of few words. Any decision the FCC makes is “likely to impact a very wide variety of stakeholders,” Simington said: “it's very important to have a broad view of the situation and talk to all parties potentially impacted by any decision.”

The long-pending rulemaking on whether streaming services should be characterized as MVPDs is “worth considering,” Simington said, though he added it isn’t clear the agency can extend its reach that way. He’s open to a “least burdensome” path toward requiring alerting on streaming services: “Expanding the commission’s reach is something for Congress to decide.” He's open to the FCC revisiting the previous proceeding on the topic.

ISPs, Media

Net neutrality and Communications Act Title II net neutrality have been conflated in recent years, Simington said.

Some states have painted “too broad a brush with formal net neutrality laws that may have unintended consequences” (see 2102160083), he said. Simington is “dubious” about reenacting net neutrality regulations. He said that “it's clear that the commission has to eventually do something because we can't have a 50-state patchwork of neutrality regulations, either.”

Simington would have “certain misgivings” about reclassifying ISPs under Title II: “It’s not clear to me that there’s been a lot of negative Title II prohibitive behavior recently.” The FCC could take up a “light version” of 2015 net neutrality rules, he said, and it’s possible Congress, not the commission, may be the ultimate decision-maker (see 2102240069). ISPs have offered zero rating in recent years, which would have been prohibited under Title II but is “socially beneficial” in some cases, Simington said. There hasn’t been much of throttling or blocking content either, he said.

Consider changes to the media market and importance of local journalism that stations provide as the agency considers the 2018 quadrennial review of such ownership rules, Simington said. The FCC should take “a hard look” at media markets and broadcaster advertising revenue as compared with tech companies, Simington said. He described himself as skeptical of local ownership limits on broadcasters.

Simington conceded technical underpinnings of the UHF discount no longer exist. But “I don’t see the gain in going after this issue right now.” Anyone worried that the UHF discount is making things too easy for broadcasters should take a closer look at stations outside top markets, he said.