WASHINGTON (CN) – Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai may have been dealt a setback after lawmakers temporarily restored net neutrality rules he reversed last year, but on Thursday during a congressional budget hearing, he opted to focus instead on the FCC’s next move: faster internet speeds and rural broadband deployment.
Both Pai and Federal Trade Commission chairman Joseph Simons came before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee to discuss their respective budgets for 2019.
The FCC’s request of $330 million, which is not paid through taxpayer funds but through regulatory fees, and the FTC’s request for $309 million are not far off 2018 levels.
In 2018, the FCC received $322 million. The extra $8 million this year is a one-time request, Pai said, with the added influx of cash, the commission could overhaul its own body and shift its outdated technology to cloud-based solutions.
“It will save money in the long run and improve security while we enhance the services that we regulate like caller ID spoofing rules” Pai said, referencing the autodialed calls made by solicitors who mask their identity.
The funding could also upgrade the FCC’s Disaster Information Reporting System, a critical alert function with hurricane season just two weeks away, Pai noted.
After Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were upended from destructive hurricanes last year, the FCC has since poured $954 million into replacing decrepit cables that were torn up from the ground and rebuilding service towers that “snapped like matchsticks” Pai said.
Once the commission is running at its full funding, the focus will be competition, namely, making U.S. broadband competitive with countries like China who are on track to perfect and deploy 5G service networks before the U.S.
The chairman’s intent to improve FCC’s standards and “innovate in the marketplace” was extolled by some lawmakers Thursday. But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. who just yesterday voted in favor of reversing Pai’s repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order, expressed his dismay with the chairman.
“I disagree with many decisions you’ve made at the FCC but I’m also concerned with your tone. I think you’ve shown contempt to the public. You’ve ignored overwhelming public support for net neutrality and you’ve gone against the will of congress by seeking to undermine media ownership rules,” Leahy said.
Current media market ownership rules limit broadcasters from reaching beyond a 39 percent share of the country. This ensures independence of different regions and avoids monopolization.
“But the FCC is considering a merger between Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media that would create a massive broadcast group with more than 72 percent of all U.S. households in its reach, dwarfing all other media owners,” Leahy said.
A ruling on the share cap is currently pending in a federal court in D.C., so Pai was unwilling to comment.
If the near entirety of the communication market being on the verge of monopolization was off the table Thursday, Leahy said he wanted straight answers from Pai on how the FCC proposes a fix to other problems, like connectivity in rural states.
The senator took issue with broadband eligibility maps recently released by the FCC that show remote regions of Vermont as connected when in reality, they are not, he said.
“I realize these are initial maps, but Vermont’s coverage map doesn’t even pass the laugh test,” Leahy said.
Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma agreed with Leahy, noting the FCC’s maps of his home state were no better.
Though Pai assured the committee there would be a “robust challenge process” to the maps available to states, Lankford said he was uncertain if that process would be any more efficient for rural communities already struggling to gain access both physically and financially.
Regions that need access have to pay for their own evaluations of an area. Then they bid against other areas who may not have paid for the evaluation to begin with since the bid for service is open to all.
Those that challenge the map, Lankford said, are already at a disadvantage in the overall process.
Recognizing rural communities may not have the ability to effectively bid for service to their remote areas means the FCC can issue certain waivers to expedite the process, Pai said.