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Senate OKs 60-31

Post-Confirmation, Stakeholders Eye Davidson's Priorities

Senators and industry officials are eyeing a laundry list of policy matters they want Alan Davidson to prioritize once he becomes NTIA administrator. The Senate confirmed Davidson Tuesday on a bipartisan 60-31 vote, as expected (see 2201050056). The chamber voted 64-30 Monday to invoke cloture on Davidson (see 2201100058).

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The timeline for his swearing-in is unclear. The White House and NTIA didn't comment.

Davidson will be the agency's first permanent head in more than two years. Previous administrator David Redl abruptly resigned in May 2019 (see 1905090051) amid an extended period of interagency spectrum policy infighting. Industry officials hope having clear political leadership at NTIA could be helpful in working through spectrum disputes between the FCC and federal agencies.

Senators we spoke with believe Davidson's primary focus needs to be successfully administering $48 billion in broadband money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The infrastructure law put NTIA in charge of the vast majority of the $65 billion for connectivity. Senators also want NTIA to show progress in ensuring there's not a repeat of spectrum policy fracases.

Davidson “has a lot of private sector experience” in previous roles as Google’s first U.S. public policy director and Mozilla vice president-global policy “and a lot of knowledge about the internet” as a distribution network, said Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “I hope he can use that expertise and his prior stint” as Commerce Department digital economy director during the Obama administration to “maximize” use of IIJA’s broadband money.

Cantwell noted her continued interest in how Commerce would improve broadband affordability since IIJA didn’t do enough on that issue compared with its focus on deployments. Davidson will be a “very skilled hand at trying to address both the issues of affordability and access” in NTIA’s implementation of IIJA, she said in a floor speech. Forty-three Democrats backed Davidson; seven others didn’t vote.

Broadband Eyed

Davidson should “hit the ground running” on broadband due to the scope of the programs IIJA tasks NTIA to administer, said Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M. NTIA seeks comment through Feb. 4 on rules for distributing the connectivity money.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, told us he wants Davidson to ensure NTIA gives “equal treatment” to all states in the disbursal process. “There are 50 states and each one is unique in many, many ways,” so it's important none “gets special treatment” or “inequitable treatment,” he said.

Senate Communications ranking member John Thune, R-S.D., emphasized his misgivings with Davidson’s stance on whether NTIA should include net neutrality requirements in disbursing IIJA money and whether the agency would “issue contracts” only to entities with union workforces (see 2112140074). Thune was among the 31 Republican senators who voted against Davidson Tuesday. Seventeen Republicans supported him, and two others didn’t vote.

Davidson will “presumably” have major say over how NTIA structures the programs’ rules “and I assume he’s going to get a lot of direction from above” in the Biden administration, Thune told us. “I hope he creates an organization” to "efficiently distribute what’s going to be a lot of money.” The “last time they had that responsibility” via the broadband technology opportunities program, “it didn’t go very well,” Thune said. “I hope he puts a good team together and puts together a plan to make the most of those broadband dollars and ensure they get spent wisely and well.”

Senate Public Works Committee ranking member Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., told us she backed Davidson because “he knows the technologies, he’s been in that space. I felt I got a good rapport going with him.” She wants Davidson to prioritize “underserved and unserved areas” in NTIA’s IIJA broadband programs, given her focus on improving rural connectivity.

Spectrum's Role

Davidson should play a key role in addressing federal spectrum disputes since the Biden administration hasn't articulated a clear, national spectrum strategy, experts said. FAA concerns led AT&T and Verizon to temporarily pause their planned rollouts of commercial activity on the C band (see 2201100025). Davidson isn’t known as a spectrum expert but has experience there, including at Google related to the FCC 700 MHz auction.

Substance expertise is valuable,” said New Street’s Blair Levin. “Alan has more than many think and NTIA has significant expertise.” The “big missing piece has been institutional authority,” Levin said: “Having a Senate-confirmed person who can convene stakeholders, set a process for resolution, call the question and resolve any conflict is critical.”

Nobody comes into any office 100% in any single area, but it’s not as if Alan is a newcomer to this,” said Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld. Davidson “has been in tech policy for well over 20 years. … He’s certainly aware of the spectrum issues and has been no doubt brought up to speed.” Feld has no doubt that before the nomination, White House staff “had a lot of discussions about his familiarity with the topic and his ability to deal with this very difficult situation that we have now between the federal agencies and the FCC.”

Davidson isn’t a wireless expert, but “I don’t see why that would necessarily be an impediment to NTIA being able to continue work on coordinating the demonstrated need for better spectrum utilization,” said Kristian Stout, International Center for Law & Economics director-innovation policy. “I don’t have any reason at the moment to think there is a problem looming.”

Finally having a new head of NTIA brings tremendous hope regarding speeding the process of bringing new federal spectrum to consumers,” said former Commissioner Robert McDowell: “We are facing a spectrum supply chain shortage unlike anything we have experienced in decades. The U.S. has lost a full year during a crucial time in the build out of 5G and the development of 6G.”

No 'Doormat'

Others warn against seeing the new NTIA administrator as a fix for institutional problems.

Davidson is likely to be too busy “overseeing NTIA's massive broadband spending program to spend too much time on spectrum,” said former FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly. “Lack of an administrator is not what allows federal agencies to run amok trying to undo sound spectrum decisions, it's a lack of empowerment by an administration that NTIA is the entity in charge of managing federal agency spectrum and related licenses,” he said. “NTIA can't be a spectrum doormat” with other agencies doing end-runs around it, he said.

Davidson will need firm support from White House to “settle, or at least significantly reduce, disputes through NTIA-led interagency processes, and to bring about unified executive branch positions,” said Seth Cooper, Free State Foundation senior fellow.

McDowell said it’s important the FCC also now has clear political leadership, with Jessica Rosenworcel becoming permanent chair. “The hope is that those agencies can make up for lost time, schedule some auctions and identify more spectrum for additional exclusive use auctions and constructive sharing, all in short order,” he said: “There's still no sign of a comprehensive spectrum plan in the offing, much like during the previous administration.”

Davidson will have a big role in representing federal agencies at the FCC, and overseeing the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee, said Jeffrey Westling, American Action Forum technology and innovation policy director. “Too often, the NTIA has been taking a back seat to other federal agencies, especially in recent years,” he said: “We need the executive branch to speak with a single voice rather than allowing concerns to bleed outside of the process any time an agency doesn’t like a decision.”

The FCC and NTIA have worked together as partners in the past, and I look forward to building on that history with close cooperation in the future,” Rosenworcel said. “I look forward to working together on spectrum policy that reflects our national priorities and offering support as NTIA prepares to distribute the largest broadband infrastructure investment in our nation’s history. Working together, I am confident we can make progress on delivering innovative, modern communications that reach everyone, everywhere.”

Stakeholders praised the Senate for confirming Davidson, including: AT&T, Comcast, Connect Americans Now, Free Press, Frontier Communications, Incompas, NATE, NCTA, NTCA, Rural Wireless Association, USTelecom, Telecommunications Industry Association, Wireless Infrastructure Association, Wireless ISP Association and WTA.