This Week in Tech: Senate dials in on wireless competition

The Senate this week will review the state of competition in the cellphone market.

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust will hold a hearing Wednesday on the issue with executives from Verizon, T-Mobile and C Spire as well as a representatives from public interest groups.

Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press, said he plans to testify about the market generally, which is “relatively more competitive compared to some other communications industries.”

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According to Wood, the wireless market works “reasonably well thanks to the antitrust enforcement we had when AT&T tried to buy T-Mobile.” He added that he does not plan to talk about rumors of a potential T-Mobile, Sprint merger “unless some sort of news breaks.”

Wood also said he plans to stress the need to maintain and increase competition in the wireless market as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moves ahead with its auction of airwaves.

The FCC’s “incentive auction” will purchase unneeded airwaves from broadcasters in order to resell those airwaves to spectrum-hungry wireless carriers. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced last year that he would push back the auction to some time in 2015.

In the mean time, advocates and industry representatives are waiting anxiously to see how the FCC will limit the participation of wireless companies, especially Verizon and AT&T, which already control much of the wireless industry’s spectrum.

Public interest groups and companies like T-Mobile and Sprint are asking the FCC to limit participation across all companies so that no one well-funded company can outbid its competitors and walk away from the auction with the majority of the available airwaves.

A T-Mobile spokesman said Thomas Sugrue, senior vice president of government affairs, would testify about the company’s hopes for the spectrum auction as well as specific ways the company contributes to competition in the wireless market.

Sugrue “will focus attention on the pro-consumer benefits from its various Un-carrier initiatives and the issues that need to be addressed to make sure there is a competitive market in mobile broadband in the future, including reasonable access to all parties for low-band spectrum,” the spokesman said.

Eric Graham, senior vice president of strategic relations for C Spire, said he plans to tell the subcommittee about the dangers that come from the large market shares held by AT&T and Verizon.

“We look forward to sharing with the subcommittee how the concentration of over two-thirds of the wireless market in the hands of just two national operators inflicts real harms on American consumers and overall economic growth, especially outside the nation’s urban areas,” Graham said in a statement.

Verizon — which will be represented by its Executive Vice President Randal Milch at the hearingon Wednesday — declined to comment.

On Tuesday, the Department of Commerce will hold its second meeting on facial recognition technology, bringing together tech companies and privacy advocates who will consider the privacy implications of the technology.

At the direction of the White House, the group will ultimately produce a privacy-enhancing code of conduct for companies that use facial recognition technology.

Government surveillance programs will be a hot topic next week at congressional hearings and at think tanks around town.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will testify about his “vision for the future” of his department on Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee.

Surveillance issues will most likely be on the agenda, including questions about the department’s recently scrapped plan to track license plates.

Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the U.S. Cyber Command, will testify Thursday morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, will join Alexander as they go over the department’s fiscal 2015 defense authorization request.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will discuss the balance of security and privacy with the executive director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero, at a luncheon on Monday at the Federalist Society.  

On Tuesday, the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute hosts an event with top academics, analysts and trade group officials to look at the cost of the NSA’s programs.

Next week, the House will be voting on a bill that would allow consumers to “unlock” their cellphones, or transfer their devices from one wireless company to another.

A 2012 decision from the Library of Congress prohibited consumers from unlocking their cellphones without the original wireless company’s permission. In response, House Judiciary Committee passed a bill from Chairman Bob Goodlate (R-Va.) last summer to permit consumers to transfer their devices.

In December, the FCC announced that it had reached an agreement with the top wireless companies — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular — to allow consumers to transfer devices between the companies when possible.

On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) will deliver remarks on protecting students’ data at a summit held by Common Sense Media. The officials will discuss “practices that safeguard student privacy and support connected classrooms,” Common Sense Media said.

The summit will also include Federal Trade Commission Commissioner Julie Brill, the former chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education and tech executives.

On Friday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Trade will hold another hearing in its series to examine the Federal Trade Commission. The hearing will focus on perspectives from academic experts.

On Thursday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will look at ways that the government recycles electronics.