High-stakes battles engulf FCC

High-stakes battles engulf FCC
© Greg Nash

Policy battles that have been mounting for months are poised to engulf the Federal Communications Commission in the final months of the Obama administration.

Thursday marks the deadline for Chairman Tom Wheeler to say whether he will bring any of three major policy proposals to a vote at the commission’s meeting in September. Major corporate players have a stake in all three debates.

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One proposal could give Americans more ways to watch television and, possibly, replace their living room set-top box. A second would crack down on how internet providers use customers’ personal data. And a third has the potential to bring changes to an obscure but valuable market for broadband connections that are used by big business. 

“Whether folks agree or disagree with Tom, they can't say that he has been idle,” said former Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell, who is now a partner at the law firm Wiley Rein, which has lobbied for several industry clients on the FCC proposals, in an email. “And I imagine he'll keep the Commission in fifth gear as he rushes to complete his 'To Do' list, such as with new regulations regarding: cable set top boxes, privacy and special access (or business data services), among other initiatives.”

When, and in what order, Wheeler will bring the proposals before the full commission remains to be seen.

Wheeler said earlier this year that he didn’t believe the votes needed to take place before the presidential election. FCC spokesperson Kim Hart declined to comment beyond Wheeler’s prior statements about timing.

The votes, whenever they take place, will be the culmination of battles between corporate giants, consumer advocates and members of Congress. 

Pay-television providers have led an onslaught against Wheeler’s proposal to open up the set-top box market. Wheeler’s proposal, they argue, endangers consumer privacy by potentially allowing companies who manufacturer the boxes to mine consumer data. They say the plan also could upset the copyright protections for content and put minority programmers at a disadvantage.

An industry-backed coalition is pushing an alternative proposal that would instead require that major pay-TV providers create applications for different devices to allow customers to watch live programming. 

The pressure campaign on Wheeler has spurred dozens of letters from lawmakers, including House and Senate leaders in from both parties, most expressing worries about the plan. 

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has also raised questions about the chairman’s initial proposal. Her vote is seen as crucial to the item's success.

“Kudos to the Chairman for kicking off this conversation but it has become clear the original proposal has real flaws and as I’ve suggested before, is too complicated,” she said in a June statement. “We need to find another way forward.”

Even Google, viewed as a likely box manufacturer should the FCC item be approved, has said that the industry’s proposal is “constructive.” 

Wheeler has allies in the fight. President Obama backed the proposal earlier this year, and public interest groups are strongly supportive.

The fights over privacy and business broadband connections are not as high profile, but they are equally contentious.

Wheeler’s privacy proposal would require internet service providers like Comcast or Verizon to get customers’ permission before they use their data for most purposes.

The providers say it’s unfair for the FCC to impose a strict set of rules on them when web platforms that also mine user data, like Google and Facebook, are regulated under a less stringent standard at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC only has the authority to pursue “unfair and deceptive practices,” rather than setting more prescriptive rules.

“But time and time again, the FCC appears to want to place its thumb on the scale in favor of Internet companies and against the companies that invest in broadband infrastructure in this country,” AT&T’s Bob Quinn wrote in March. 

Wheeler counters that the data held by a single web platform, like Facebook, is not comparable to the bird’s eye view that an internet provider has of its customers' behavior.

“I go to WebMD, and WebMD collects information on me. I go to Weather.com, and Weather.com collects information on me,” he said earlier this year. “I go to Facebook, and Facebook collects information on me. But only one entity collects all of that information, that I’m going to all of those different sites, and can turn around and monetize it.”

The other battle, meanwhile, concerns planned reforms to the “special access” market for high-capacity, dedicated connections that bring internet connections to ATMs and cell towers, among other things. Critics of the market say major providers unfairly control it.

Wheeler has said that he wants to “identify those markets that are competitive, and those that are not, and to adopt a tailored regulatory framework to mirror those distinctions.” The proposal has been met with resistance from the large providers, like AT&T, and the cable industry.

Michael Copps, a former Democratic commissioner now a special adviser with the public interest group Common Cause, which supports several of Wheeler's initiatives, said that he hoped the chairman would push forward despite the controversies generated by the proposals.

“My opinion is he should keep doing what he’s been doing,” he said, “select the items that he wants to move — he’s got three big priorities here — and get them out on circulation and push them to a vote, and hope for the best.”