FCC Reauthorization Bill Should Pass Congress: Senate Aide

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By Lydia Beyoud

March 9 —A Senate bill to reauthorize the Federal Communications Commission for two years should be sufficiently modest and noncontroversial to get bipartisan support and pass Congress—despite a condensed election year legislative calendar, a senior Republican committee aide said.

The FCC Reauthorization Act of 2016 (S. 2644), introduced March 7 by Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), would fund the agency through fiscal year 2017 at essentially current levels and would tackle several regulatory transparency “best practices,” David Quinalty, the committee's policy director, said March 9 at the Technology Industry Association's Spring Policy Summit in Washington .

“Having Congress reauthorize the agency should lead to a more responsive and more productive relationship between Congress and the commission,” Quinalty said. The FCC hasn't been reauthorized in 25 years.

Ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is reviewing the bill but hasn't taken a position on it, John Branscome, communications counsel for committee Democrats, said during the same panel. Committee Democrats will be focusing on the consumer protections it might offer and promotes the public interest, he said.

Republicans are pushing for a quick markup of the bill, possibly by March 16, though the committee hasn't yet confirmed a date. “FCC reauthorization is a difficult thing,” Branscome said. “Trying to do what no one's been able to do in 25 years in 10 days—that's hard.”

The bill doesn't include changes to the agency's processes, though Thune would like to tackle such measures in the future, Quinalty said. Process changes such as those proposed in companion FCC Collaboration Act bills (H.R. 1396, S. 760) have proven contentious. Neither bill has advanced out of committee.

Time may be running out on the legislative calendar, leaving the chairman eager to advance the reauthorization and his MOBILE Now spectrum bill, Quinalty said. “One of the reasons why Chairman Thune's looking to move quickly on both of these is because of the presidential election year,” he said.

With most of the committee's action in 2015 focused on transportation issues, Senate Commerce is expected to turn its attention more to the telecom space, though a full rewrite of the nation's telecom laws is unlikely, Quinalty said.

House Outlook

A House Republican aide speaking on the same panel concurred that a substantiative update of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Pub. L. No. 104-104) would be difficult given industry consolidation in the past 20 years. Work on key issues like infrastructure and net neutrality are still possible, said Kelsey Guyselman, counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Republicans on the House committee are planning a March 15 markup session on a controversial bill that would prohibit any rate regulation of broadband Internet service providers, several telecom industry sources told Bloomberg BNA on background. A GOP committee spokesman confirmed the markup date.

The No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act (H.R. 2666) was approved by the Communications and Technology Subcommittee Feb. 11 on a party-line vote, despite an impasse with the Democratic minority. If approved by the full committee, the action would come in the midst of a pair of forthcoming net neutrality legal and regulatory actions.

The FCC is soon expected to circulate proposed net neutrality privacy rules for a March 31 vote, and a federal court is expected to rule in the next several weeks on broadband providers' bids to overturn the 2015 rules, which reclassified broadband providers under a more stringent regulatory regime.

Separately, the House Rules Committee is scheduled to mark up the Small Business Broadband Deployment Act (H.R. 4596) the week of March 14.

The bill was reported out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Feb. 26 after bipartisan negotiations resulted in an exemption for small Internet service providers from certain service reporting requirements under net neutrality rules. The Rules Committee hasn't announced a meeting yet to take up H.R. 4596 but it will likely be early next week, a committee spokeswoman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com