FCC Nominees Grilled by Lawmakers on E-Rate, Net Neutrality
Federal lawmakers pressed Federal Communications Commission nominees Brendan Carr and Jessica Rosenworcel, along with current Chairman Ajit Pai, on their support for the future of the federal E-Rate program and their positions on net neutrality at a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
"We're studying, obviously, ways to improve the program," said Pai, a Republican, when asked by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., whether the FCC planned to decrease funding or make programmatic changes to the E-Rate. The program helps schools and libraries pay for telecommunications services, including high-speed internet access.
Neither Carr, also a Republican, nor Pai would say that funding cuts were off the table.
"I have an open mind as to what the budget numbers should be," said Carr, in response to Markey's questioning about a possible decrease in E-Rate funding.
Markey said that it was "troubling" to not receive a commitment from Carr or Pai to funding for E-rate, a program he called a "democratizing force."
While E-rate and net neutrality featured prominently in the hearing, lawmakers also focused on rural broadband deployment, questioning the nominees on access for consumers and business owners.
Carr, a first-time nominee, currently serves as the FCC general counsel and was a former legal adviser to Pai during his term as a commissioner at the FCC. Pai was named as FCC chairman by President Trump earlier this year, and the assumption is that he will challenge many of the policies put in place by the FCC during the Obama administration.
Ranking committee member Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked Carr whether the FCC would wait until the coming year, when comissioners could review the results of E-Rate modernization efforts, before making any changes to the program.
"The nation's students, and the teachers, and the libraries are going to hold us accountable for any changes if we roll back the E-rate program," said Nelson.
Carr said he did not have a "pre-ordained view" of the future of the program.
"I will not be making or casting a vote to change a program until we get information about whether it's working or not," Carr said.
In 2014 the FCC voted to increase the annual funding for the E-rate from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion, as part of a broad modernization of the program. The E-rate is funded through through fees on telecommunications providers, which are passed on to consumers. Pai voted against the E-Rate modernization as a commissioner in 2014 and has publicly advocated for overhauling of the program's application requirements and funding distribution formulas. Under his leadership, the FCC also rescinded a report documenting the program's successes.
If confirmed, the appointments of Carr and Rosenworcel would return the agency to its full strength of five commissioners and result in a 3-2 Republican majority on the panel. A Republican-majority FCC could make it easier for Pai to make changes to the E-Rate, net neutrality, and other policies that he envisions.
Nelson questioned Carr's ability to operate independently as a comissioner, given that Carr will be working alongside Pai, his former boss. Carr pledged that he was "committed to independence" and said that he believed the agency worked best when it operated in a bipartisan, consensus-based manner.
Rosenworcel, a Democrat who served on the commission from 2012 through January of this year, lauded the E-Rate as "absolutely vital" and pledged she would not vote to reduce the program's funding as a commissioner at the agency. Rosenworcel voted for E-Rate modernization in 2014, and defended commission's revamping of the program.
"Reforms were put in place in 2015, and promises were made to every school and library in this country that E-rate dollars would be available to them," she said, "and I want to make sure that that promise is kept."
Though they did not address the specifics of E-rate funding, Carr and Pai both voiced their support for the program's overall mission. "For years I've said the E-rate is a program worth fighting for," Pai told the lawmakers.
When Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, asked if they would commit to keeping the broad structure of the E-rate program in place, Carr, Pai, and Rosenworcel all responded that they would.
That did not reassure education advoacy organization Common Sense Kids Action. In a statement this afternoon, CEO and founder James P. Steyer said the organization was "extremely disappointed and concerned" that Carr and Pai did not make a more specific pledge to not cut E-rate funding.
"We cannot afford to go backwards when it comes to our country's commitment to wiring every classroom and are encouraged that at least five senators raised concerns about E-Rate's continuity at today's hearing."
Tamping Down Investment?
Net neutrality also took a front seat at the hearing.
The issue has become the focus of heated public debate since Chairman Pai announced in April plans to roll back FCC regulations approved in 2015 that were designed to prevent internet service providers from prioritizing certain content while throttling, or slowing down, the delivery of other content.
This May, the FCC put forward a notice of proposed rulemaking re-evaluating those regulations, which reclassifed broadband service as subject to regulations under Title II of the Communications Act and section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. Regulations approved by the agency blocked internet providers from creating of "fast lanes" for delivering internet content, and from degrading or slowing other content.
Pai has said that the Title II regulations are federal overreach, and that they place burdensome restrictions on ISPs that will discourage innovation. During the hearing, Pai said that the regulations "might be dampening infrastructure investments" from ISPs.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah criticized the 2015 Open Internet Order, which placed ISPs under Title II regulatory framework, calling it a "perfect example of the instrusive, heavy-handed government regulation causing delay in the industry."
But Markey noted that none of the top ISPs have reported that Title II regulations have slowed investment in broadband. "Since these net neutrality rules have been in place, the internet has thrived," said Markey.
School administrators and librarians have voiced concerns that the rollback of net neutrality would limit access to online educational content, including open educational resources.
Critics of Pai's effort say larger companies may be able to pay for faster internet speeds, leaving smaller companies and nonprofits at a disadvantage when trying to to deliver material to students. Ed-tech advocates have noted that schools' ability to stream online content is already hamped by a lack of reliable, fast internet connectivity and the inability of many students to work on the same online programs at once.
The FCC has been taking public comment on the proposal to revoke net neutrality in hopes to make the decision an "open process," said Pai.
The outpouring of public response "shows the level of passion and interest in this issue," said Carr. For this reason, he said, comments need to be taken into account.
Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., asked how the FCC planned to weight comments that may be "fake or abusive." He said that over one million comments on the FCC site came from international filers, including over 300,000 from Russia.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., voiced her concern that her constituents' real comments would not be addressed if the FCC disregarded many of the comments as spam.
Pai assured Cantwell that he would consider comments from business owners, web developers, and consumers. The decision on net neutrality will be only be made after careful consideration of all the evidence collected by the agency, he said.
Outside of discussion of the E-Rate and net neutrality, much of the hearing focused on broadband deployment, with a focus on rural access and affordability. Lawmakers questioned the nominees on the steps the FCC would take to close the urban-rural "digital divide," an issue Pai has identified as one of his top priorities since his appointment as chairman of the agency. Senators also asked the appointees about the development of spectrum and 5G technologies.
Photo: Federal Communication Commission Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel takes her seat before the start of their open hearing and vote on Net Neutrality in Washington, in 2015. --Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP-File