New congress, old issues return to Washington, D.C. in 2019

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

There were two wins for broadband development policy in Washington D.C. this year, and both were backed by agriculture interests. In March, a big federal spending bill passed, with $600 million going to the new ReConnect broadband infrastructure grant and loan program, and the once-every-five-years farm bill was approved earlier this month, with at least $1.7 billion more for similar purposes.

Congress didn’t do much else, though.

Unless there’s a surprise on Monday, the year will end with one empty seat on the Federal Communications Commission. Geoffrey Starks was appointed to fill a democratic party slot, but the senate never confirmed the nomination. Nor did it renew republican Brendan Carr’s term as an FCC commissioner. Disputes over the FCC’s mobile broadband rural telehealth subsidy programs stalled votes. Starks will have to be reappointed; absent another nominee, Carr will be able to serve for two more years.

Other unfinished business at the federal capitol includes…

  • Net neutrality – the senate voted to block the FCC’s rollback of network neutrality rules in May, but there wasn’t enough support in the house of representatives to bring the resolution of disapproval to a vote. Only one republican signed on to it, and it didn’t even get full support from democrats.

  • Privacy and social media – we saw lots of hearings and some disturbingly ignorant questions from elderly lawmakers, but no action on privacy legislation in D.C. Pressure is building for federal preemption, though, as a response to California’s new privacy law and similar initiatives in other states.

  • Mobile spectrum and small cell deployment – two mobile broadband policy bills by the republican majority’s point man on telecoms issues in the senate – John Thune (R – North Dakota) – are dead. The Streamline act, would have baked much of the FCC’s local pole ownership preemption into law. The Mobile Now act was aimed at opening up more spectrum for both licensed and unlicensed broadband service.

  • Municipal broadband – a bill introduced by Silicon Valley representative Anna Eshoo (D – Santa Clara) and trashed by key committee chair Marsha Blackburn (R – Tennesse) would have preempted state-level restriction on muni broadband service. Another Eschoo bill would have imposed dig once requirements on federal highway projects. Neither bill made it out of the starting blocks.

Next year, democrats take over as majority party in the house, Blackburn moves to the still-republican controlled senate, and Thune moves up the republican leadership food chain. Conventional wisdom says the two houses will deadlock, with even less chance of meaningful telecoms policy legislation being passed.

In other words, expect nothing to change.