Broadband, conduit bills left stranded in Washington, D.C.

13 December 2016 by Steve Blum
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The 114th congress ended with a stack of unfinished broadband business. The most consequential might be the failure to confirm Jessica Rosenworcel for a new term on the Federal Communications Commission, but buried in the wreckage of more than a dozen broadband-related bills are hints of what to expect from the new congress and the new administration next year.

The one major bill with a chance to pass muster with lawmakers as well as the white house was the Mobile Now act. There was bipartisan support for its primary objective of transferring more spectrum from government departments to mobile and other wireless broadband uses. But the same political arm wrestling that fatally stalled Rosenworcel’s nomination also stalled the Mobile Now bill and it died on the U.S. senate floor.

Bills that would have kneecapped the FCC’s regulation of broadband as a common carrier service and widened the loopholes in ISP transparency rules – HR 2666 and HR 4596 respectively – also withered away from neglect in the senate. Dig once bills, that would have promoted conduit installation in federal highway projects, also proved unpopular with parallel house and senate bills dying without a vote. The Mobile Now act also had such language at once point, but it didn’t survive the trip through the committee process.

Duelling municipal broadband measures fought to a standstill. Two bills that would have restricted state governments’ power to ban muni broadband, including HR 6013 by Silicon Valley representative Anna Eshoo, and two bills that would have baked that authority into federal law never even got to a vote in their first committee stop, let alone to a full floor vote.

No one is talking publicly about reintroducing any of these bills next year, but if you’re trying to handicap the early odds, party affiliation is the best clue as to what to expect. The bills that would have peeled back FCC broadband regulations and affirmed the right of states to regulate what cities do came from republicans, while those that would have given cities more independence and opened up competitive opportunities by putting conduit into road projects were authored by democrats. Even if the former had been passed by congress, a presidential veto was certain. And the latter never stood a chance.

Next year, though, republicans will control both branches and the FCC. Odds of a pruning – if not a wholesale weed-whacking – of federal broadband rules are high. Bills with bipartisan support, such as Mobile Now, are also good candidates for enactment. On the other hand, don’t expect much in the way of dig once legislation or federal preemption of state laws restricting muni broadband.