FCC commissioners play it safe and loose at CES

6 January 2017 by Steve Blum
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There was an elephant in the packed CES meeting room where three Federal Communications Commissioners spoke yesterday, and no one noticed him. The session, moderated by a deferential lobbyist from the show’s producer, the Consumer Technology Association, ran its full allotted half hour, with no mention of Donald Trump, who will be setting the course for federal telecoms policy when he chooses a new FCC chair – perhaps one of the current republican commissioners, perhaps not.

There was also no mention of Jessica Rosenworcel, who was renominated to the FCC by Barack Obama earlier this week. She can’t resume her seat, though, until and unless the U.S. senate confirms her.

While taking easy swings at softball questions (did you learn anything by travelling around the country?), republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, and democrat Mignon Clyburn gingerly staked out vague policy positions for the coming year.

O’Rielly riffed on the limits of FCC authority, saying – not for the first time – that the commission can’t be doing things that congress hasn’t specifically told it to do. Things like setting cybersecurity rules, which he spoke about yesterday, or reclassifying broadband as a common carrier service, which he’s been adamant about in the past. He said that less regulation will allow telecoms companies to “focus on customers and consumers and business models rather than worrying about the FCC”.

Pai likewise talked about reducing barriers for entrepreneurs, and encouraging investment in low income areas. “We really need to give job creators the maximum incentive possible”, he said.

Clyburn spoke up in favor of regulation, including specific common carrier status for broadband. She also said that local governments have a role to play in setting wireless policy and “we need to make sure they’re part of the 5G conversation”.

On the whole, the conversation was collegial and guarded. There was one revealing – and good natured – moment when O’Rielly said he was wholeheartedly looking forward to starting over with a new commission. Clyburn thought he was a little too happy. “You’re smiling way too much”, she said as she turned and grinned at the audience. “He says hallelujah, and starts over”.