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House Democrats Blast FCC Policies

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats began their oversight reign of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today with a broadside of criticism over the GOP-controlled agency's operation.

Over the course of a testy three-hour hearing, Democrats found fault with the FCC's handling of the AT&T-BellSouth merger, broadband penetration rates, the digital television transition, cable franchise rules and lack of interoperability among first responders.

The controversial subject of network neutrality rarely came up in the hearing, but Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) promised the panel would hold several hearings solely focused on the issue.

Even without that hot button issue, Democrats found much to dislike about the FCC under current Chairman Kevin Martin and former Chairman Michael Powell.

"For some time, the Commission has not been subject to an appropriate level of Congressional oversight," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) said, alluding to the Republican Party's longtime control of Congress. "This oversight slumber seems to have led to unwelcome consequences."

The agency, according to Dingell, has lost its way. "When the FCC loses sight of its proper role, consumers suffer, as does the credibility of the FCC. I fear that has too often been the case," he said.

Martin defended the agency's record under Republican rule, telling the lawmakers the FCC's deregulatory approach to telecommunications has led from a "period of sharp decline to a time of significant growth."

Nevertheless, Martin admitted, "Faced with such fast-paced change, regulations and the Commission often struggle to keep up."

Dingell was particularly critical of a December FCC decision streamlining video franchise rules for telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon, who are rolling out broadband-based television service to compete with cable operators.

The new rules pre-empt most of the power of local franchising authorities to dictate the terms and conditions to distribute video in a community.

"In 1984, those of us who wrote the law established well-defined and distinct roles in cable regulation for the local governments and for the FCC," Dingell said. "If reform of that regulatory structure is necessary, then it is the prerogative of Congress. It is not, however, the role of the FCC."

Martin said the FCC acted within its authority to approve the cable rules.

"Congress recognized that competition in the video services market benefits consumers by resulting in lower prices and higher qualities of service," he said. "The Commission took steps to implement [the law], which prohibits local authorities from unreasonably refusing to grant a competitive franchise."

Markey lashed into the FCC's efforts to expedite the rollout of broadband, noting the steadily declining position of the U.S. in global penetration rates. He said the U.S. has suffered low penetration rates and slow speeds in comparison to other countries and threats to the freedom of the Internet, referring to the agency's network neutrality rules.

"It seems to me industry is setting the agenda [at the FCC]," Markey said.

Rep. Anna Eschoo (D-Calif.) called the agency's management style "insular and unresponsive" with a "lack of transparency and fairness." She characterized Martin's efforts to gain approval of the AT&T-BellSouth merger with no strings attached as "tremendously troubling."

After the Department of Justice (DoJ) unconditionally approved the $85 billion merger in October, Martin pushed hard for a similar approval from the FCC. When fellow Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell recused himself from the vote because of his prior lobbying work, Martin was faced with 2-2 deadlock, with Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein holding out for network neutrality concessions.

As a last resort, Martin asked the FCC's chief legal counsel if McDowell could be "unrecused." The FCC's legal department said yes, but McDowell maintained his recusal. In December, the FCC approved the merger after AT&T agreed to promise that it wouldn't prioritize Internet traffic over its platform.

"Chairman Martin, congratulations on being the father of the word 'unrecuse,' a word I had never heard of," a clearly agitated Eschoo said. "I don't think that action has instilled confidence in the public."

Rep. Jane Harmon (D-Calif.) questioned why the "leaps and bounds of technology seem to have passed by emergency services. Noting that 24 MHz of the analog spectrum being vacated by broadcasters for the 2009 DTV transition is dedicated to public safety, Harmon worried the FCC isn't moving quickly enough to establish spectrum use interoperability rules.

"This is on your watch and the clock is ticking," she said.

Republicans on the panel were mostly silent, with only Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the ranking member of the subcommittee, giving an opening statement, carefully avoiding any criticism of the agency.