WASHINGTON—Critical shortages in U.S. broadband space, privacy laws for internet users under 15 years old, and threats to the planned nationwide public safety network, were just some of the issues raised during a Congressional hearing with Federal Communication Commissioners (FCC) on Tuesday.
Internet usage in the United States has grown at an extraordinary rate. The percentage of users covered by broadband speeds above 100 megabits has grown from 20 percent three years ago to 80 percent today, according to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
The United States has regained global leadership in telecommunications, Genachowski told members of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, not only leading in third-generation technology (3G) coverage domestically, but also in app production and technology.
“In the last three years, the percentage of smartphones globally with U.S. operating systems has grown from 25 percent to more than 80 percent,” Genachowski said in a broadcast of the hearing on C-Span.
There is no doubt that communications technology is where commerce will be in the future. One-sixth of the U.S. economy is now generated by both entrepreneurial and established activity across the Internet and in new communication systems.
The rapid expansion of the communications sector raises the bar for the FCC, which, according to their website, regulates “interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable.”
Members of the House of Representatives subcommittee raised concerns from their constituents, including confusing information about provider services, over-regulation of the sector, the need for more broadband space, and services for special needs.
The five commissioners, including the chairman, responded to the concerns methodically, noting that mandatory data requirements were being implemented so that informed decisions could be made across a range of issues.
The commissioners conceded that the market is demanding more flexibility from the regulator. Genachowski noted that regulations were reviewed regularly and that he was aware of over 200 regulations that had already been removed.
Commissioner Robert M. McDowell said that sunset clauses (that expire after a set time) were also being considered.
“We could look at sunset rules to revisit after a number of years because the marketplace does change so quickly,” he told committee members.
More Broadband Space
Much of the hearing focused on congestion in the broadband spectrum, which would hinder commerce and the potential for economic growth.
According to a report from Cisco in May 2012, wireless Internet will account for 61 percent of global Internet traffic by 2016, up from 45 percent in 2011.
In an endeavor to address broadband space concerns, Congress included special provisions to put more frequencies into commercial hands in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.
Under the Act, the FCC is to hold voluntary incentive auctions, which would allow the government to share in proceeds with licensees. Broadcasters would voluntarily return spectrum, which would then be auctioned to broadband services. The FCC is also to auction off 65 megahertz of specific broadband space.
Some committee members were not convinced, however, that either strategy would provide the space needed.
They pointed to government holdings of broadband space, which, according to Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), “accounts for 60 percent of the best spectrum.”
“We need to get the spectrum inventory of military to see how much of that is available to help the private sector,” he said.
As part of the spectrum relief package included in the 2012 Act, Congress also approved a nationwide public safety broadband network. Titled FirstNet, the network will cater to first responders like police, firefighters, and emergency medical service professionals.
The Act allocates 20 megahertz of spectrum and $7 billion in funding to create the wireless network across state and local boundaries.
The plan has been widely approved, but committee members noted that the FCC provided waivers for states to use local systems while the network was being developed.
Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) raised the concern that the waiver process “could undermine” FirstNet and “jeopardize nationwide inter-operability.”
Edward Markey (D-Mass.) raised privacy concerns, noting that mobile text messages have become “indispensable to law enforcement,” as have geo-positioning features of mobile phones.
Markey released documents yesterday identifying more than 1.3 million cellphone requests for personal information from government agencies over the last year. He described the figures as startling in “volume and scope.”
“We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers,” Markey said in a statement yesterday. “Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing with the haystack?”
Privacy and trust are fundamental to the economic success of the Internet, the FCC chairman said. All of the commissioners agreed that privacy laws for those under the age of 15 should be included in privacy protections.
Members of the committee also expressed concerns regarding the devastating “derecho” storms, which hit the Mid-Atlantic States on June 29. The storms wiped out Internet and broadcast systems, including 911 services, for up to six days across Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
According to a committee statement, the FCC is investigating whether to include FM radio chips in cellphones to enable some form of connection with the wider population during emergencies.
The FCC has announced that it will hold a meeting with wireless and broadcast providers on July 20 to discuss the issue, according to a subcommittee statement.
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