Does SCOTUS EPA Case Impact Net Neutrality? Here’s Why I Say No.

For most people, the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency was about environmental policy and what the Environmental Protection Agency can still do to cut carbon emissions. For a smaller subset, mostly lawyers, W. VA v. EPA was an important (but confusing) administrative law case what we will spend a bunch of time arguing about how to apply to agencies generally. And for the tiniest of all possible subsets, meaning me and a handful of other telecom lawyers, it was about . . . net neutrality. Because just about everything in telecom still revolves around net neutrality. Srsly. If we were living in the Don’t Look Up universe and a giant asteroid were about to smash into the earth, I’d be getting questions about folks whether I thought the asteroid supported classifying broadband as Title II.

 

The other basic truism about these events is that they are rather like ink blots, where what you see depends a lot on what you already think. So those who hate Title II are convinced that this spells doom for any FCC reclassification efforts, whereas those on the pro-Title II side think this doesn’t really change anything. I’m as much a human being subject to this bias as anyone else. So I can only explain why I think W.VA. v. EPA hasn’t changed anything and let y’all decide if I’m right. It all depends on what the Court means by a “major question” that requires “clear proof” that Congress intended to vest the agency with the power to do the thing.

 

Annoyingly, the Supreme Court has not been particularly clear on this concept. The anti-Title II folks point to Kavanaugh’s dissent from the D.C. Circuit’s refusal to rehear USTA v. FCC (the case that upheld the FCC’s 2015 Title II/Net Neutrality Order, which rested in part of what Kavanaugh called “the major rule” doctrine (now officially called “major question” doctrine) and the fact that the Roberts decision in W.VA v. EPA cited the Kavanaugh dissent (although not for anything having to actually do with net neutrality.) On the other hand, as I explain below, the actual language describing the “major question doctrine” if you read the case runs against the description of the “major rules doctrine” as described by Kavanaugh in USTA. More importantly, the Court’s reliance on Gonzales v. Oregon – which cites the FCC’s authority over broadband in Brand X approvingly as an example of where Congressional delegation is “clear” – seems to me much more important than a passing citation to the Kavanaugh dissent.

 

Additionally, while we always knew where Kavanaugh would be if this ever reaches SCOTUS again, there is plenty of reason to believe he lacks 4 additional votes for his position. Notably, Thomas (and to some degree it seems Alito and Gorsuch) have all fallen in love with common carrier again. True, that is in the context of social media, but it would be a level of weirdness to find that judges by common law can determine Facebook is a common carrier but broadband providers can’t be common carriers without Congress expressly saying so. Also, Thomas actually wrote the Brand X opinion, which found that it was totally cool for the FCC to classify DSL as Title II even if cable broadband were classified as Title I, so it’s hard to see how this kind of agency discretion is compatible with “major question doctrine.”

 

I break all this down in detail below . . .

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No Sohn Means No Broadband Map, and No Broadband Map Means No BEAD Money.

I would never have imagined that we could get past Memorial Day without Gigi Sohn’s confirmation as the 5th FCC Commissioner/3rd Democrat. But Republicans who think there is no downside to dragging Sohn’s confirmation out interminably to block Title II — especially those who voted in favor of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA) and are looking for that broadband money to begin flowing to their states — may wish to think again. Why? Because without a vote on the broadband map of 2022, the NTIA cannot distribute the bulk of the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) money (or the Middle Mile money, FWIW). And while it is entirely possible that the FCC might issue the map on a 4-0 vote without controversy, I would not want to bet my state’s broadband on it given that I can’t find a single broadband report vote in the last decade that wasn’t a 3-2 party line vote. (Technically, the 2011 vote was 3-1 with Commissioner Baker not participating. But you get the idea. This does not traditionally go smoothly, and is a lot less likely to go smoothly with $45 billion on the line.)

 

Why yes, the FCC broadband map does need a majority vote of the full Commission to get issued. Nor does the relevant provision of the IIJA (Sec. 60103) require the FCC to publish the new maps by any specific deadline. It simply requires the FCC to publish the maps before NTIA distributes either the BEAD money or the Middle Mile grant money. So if the Republicans and Democrats cannot come to an agreement on the new 2022 broadband map, the broadband map does not issue in 2022. Or 2023. Or until whenever the FCC gets a third Commissioner.

 

This is not, of course, much of a problem for the giant ISPs lobbying hard to keep Sohn off the Commission. For them, the BEAD program is more a threat than a money maker, since the money will go to places the largest ISPs don’t want to serve (otherwise, they would be building there already). Indeed, the money is likely to go to potential rivals/competitors. Hence the likely controversy over the maps. The ISPs will do their best to minimize the geographic area unserved by broadband (defined in the statute as 100 megabits down/20 megabits up). Because while giant ISPs might like some of that money, it is far more important to them to keep potential new entrants or existing potential competitors from getting the money anywhere close to where the established ISPs offer service. By contrast, areas that don’t actually have broadband today want maps that reflect this reality — not maps that protect existing incumbents. Hence my belief that (like previous mapping exercises with even less on the line) the vote to produce the 2022 broadband map will be along party lines and thus need a 3rd Democrat.

 

Which, of course, is impossible without Sohn being confirmed as the 5th Commissioner. Which is just fine by the giant ISPs doing the lobbying, but not for Senators — R or D — from rural states.

 

I unpack all this below.

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Get Ready for the 2022 Season of Spectrum Wars!

It isn’t the sultry Regency drama of Bridgerton, the action psycho-drama of Moon Knight, or even the, um, whatever the heck Human Resources is. But for those of us in Telecom land, the annual season of Spectrum Wars holds an attraction like no other. This year is shaping up to be a major spectacular, with lots of old plot lines coming back (like 5.9 GHz), sleeper issues (like 12 GHz) and an unexpected new dramatic plotline around the FCC’s overall auction authority — and More! With the FCC close to finally getting a full cast, it’s looking like 2022 could be a total blockbuster (which will, of course, end in the cliffhanger of a new Congress — with Ted Cruz as potential Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee!).

 

Of course, not every potential plotline will work out, and we’ll undoubtedly have plenty of surprises along the way, but here’s a (not so) brief recap of what you need to know to follow along this season. If I missed your favorite show, let me know in the comments.

 

(And no, we’re not going to talk about net neutrality. Or any of the broadband money. This is just spectrum, not wireless service.)

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What the Eff, FAA? My Insanely Long Field Guide to the FAA/FCC 5G C-Band Fight.

5G has been accused a lot of ridiculous things — causing Covid, causing cancer, causing autism. This article provides a list of 9 separate conspiracy theory/whacky things 5G is supposed to do, from killing birds to depopulating the planet. Today we can add another thing to the list to make an even ten — causing planes to fall out of the sky. Unfortunately, the source of this particular new rumor is the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). Specifically, the new FAA “Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin” on “Risk of Potential Adverse Effects on Radio Altimeters” (generally referred to as “FAA guidance” by the industry). This has lead to a spate of articles where FAA folks anonymously leak statements about how sister agency the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is outa control and does what she wants, bitch, whatevah! and planes are gonna fall outa the sky and shut down air travel for everyone unless the FCC stops the roll out of 5G in something called “C-Band” (with phased in roll out scheduled to start in December — now delayed until January).

 

If this sounds familiar, it’s because a different agency within the Department of Transportation pulled the same nonsense over the FCC’s efforts to reclaim unused spectrum from the auto industry in the 5.9 GHz band. The Department of Defense has made similar accusations against the FCC wrt its approval of Ligado. I could list several more cases, but they basically boil down to the same thing — the federal government’s processes for addressing spectrum policy is severely broken. Unhappy federal agencies that don’t like the outcome of an FCC proceeding respond by undermining the FCC in the press and trying to wage proxy wars through allies in Congress. But the FAA’s actions here take this behavior to new heights of irresponsibility and danger.

 

As I explain in greater detail below, the technical evidence on which the FAA bases its interference concerns have a lot of problems — not least of which that about 40 other countries operate similar 5G deployments in the same C-Band without any interference showing up. Either physics works differently in the U.S., or the report at the center of this controversy needs to explain why this hasn’t shown up in any other country where deployments are either authorized or have already taken place. What is worse, the FAA has basically been playing “chicken” with the FCC by failing to turn over needed information to verify the report or replicate the results until literally the day before FAA staff leaked the “planes are gonna fall out of the sky” story to the Wall St. J.

 

But more importantly, we need this inter-agency warfare over 5G spectrum policy to stop. Things have always been difficult That we now have an FAA that would prefer to actively undermine confidence in the safety of air travel than actually work with the FCC (and trust the FCC to do its job) underscores just how bad this problem has become. Congress can help by swiftly confirming Alan Davidson as head of NTIA (the federal agency that is supposed to mange the spectrum management process on the federal side) and Jessica Rosenworcel and Gigi Sohn at the FCC.

 

More below . . .

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We Will Have a Dream Team FCC (and NTIA) — But You Still Have To Fight For Your Right To Broadband!

President Biden has finally made his critical telecom appointments to fill out the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA). As expected, Biden named Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel to serve as full chair and renominated her to fill her expired term. As hoped, he also nominated my former boss (and all around Telecom Boss) Gigi Sohn to be the third FCC Commissioner. In addition, Biden nominated Alan Davidson to serve as Administrator/Assistant Sec. for NTIA. In addition to the critical role NTIA plays in spectrum policy, NTIA will also be the agency running the multi-billion broadband infrastructure program in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (assuming that passes).

 

This makes lots of important things possible. Not just headline items like reclassifying broadband as Title II (which one would expect any Democratic FCC to do at this point). It includes developing smart and innovative policies to close the digital divide, enhance competition, put consumer protection front and center, and advance new spectrum management technologies that move us from scarcity to abundance. This trio (combined with already serving FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a champion of privacy and inclusion) are as potentially transformational in telecom policy as the appointment of Lina Kahn and Alvaro Bedoya to the Federal Trade Commission.

 

The Key word here is “potentially.

 

One of the biggest mistakes that people keep making in policy and politics is that you can just elect (or in this case, appoint) the right people and go home to let them solve the problems. Then people get all disappointed when things don’t work out. Incumbents are not going to simply surrender to new policies, and political power has limits. This will be especially true if Congress flips in 2022. So while this is definitely cause for celebration, we are going to have to fight harder than ever to get the policies we need to create the broadband (and media) we need — starting with the fight to get them confirmed over the inevitable Republican resistance.

 

Happily, fighting to achieve the right thing is much more enjoyable than fighting to prevent the wrong thing. But no one should think we can just go home, problem solved. As I have said for over 15 years, you can’t outsource citizenship. Citizen movements are citizen driven, or they either get co-opted or die. We are going to need to support (and occasionally push) the new FCC and NTIA in the face of unflagging industry pressure and political obstacles. The laws of political reality have not been repealed — but we have a unique opportunity to use them to our advantage.

 

A bit more about who these people are and the policy opportunities below. . . .

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Markey’s Bet on Net Neutrality Pays Off (But Not How You Think).

The results are in on the highly contested MA senate primary race between incumbent Senator Ed Markey and 4-term Congressman Joe Kennedy. While about 15% of the vote remains to be counted, it appears that Markey has won by about 10 points. That’s an amazing margin considering that he was trailing by double digits when Kennedy first announced his primary challenge and Markey was widely seen as the next Washington insider destined for the dustbin.

 

But as just about every activist in a wide range of causes pointed out when hearing of the primary challenge, Ed Markey is not your typical Washington insider. To the contrary, Markey has shown leadership on a host of vitally important issues for decades — and long before they were popular in democratic caucus. Markey’s campaign also bucked conventional wisdom by running aggressively on his record. Markey’s Senate win in 2014 was assured when he won the democratic primary, so it is unsurprising that many people in the state outside the activist community were unaware of just how much they owe to Ed Markey. Readers here most likely know him for his telecom work, but the impressive list includes fighting for the environment before it was cool, fighting for privacy before it was cool, and fighting for accessibility rights (which, sadly, is still not as cool as it should be). Markey’s commitment on the environment goes back well before the Green New Deal, and he was huge in writing the pro-environmental provisions in the 2005 Energy Act. He was a primary drafter of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1999. He is responsible for the closed captioning provisions and the video description provisions of the Communications Act.

 

And, of course, he was one of the earliest supporters of net neutrality, going up against members of his own party to fight the anti-net neutrality provisions of the 2006 effort to rewrite the Communications Act. You can see me gush about Markey back in 2006 here. But my appreciation for Markey goes back to the 1990s, when he was one of the few members of Congress who actually cared enough about getting the technical issues right to dig in deep on the creation of ICANN.

 

All of this paid off yesterday in Markey’s primary challenge. Markey’s early decision to back net neutrality — like his decisions on privacy and disability access — were made when no one thought any of these things would matter in an election one way or another. And I’m not going to claim that net neutrality was a deciding issue for the voters of Massachusetts. But it is part of an overall record that established Markey as a genuine progressive leader and effective fighter long before anyone considered those election advantages. In particular, net neutrality is a highly popular issue among the young online progressive activist community that press reports are saying were essential to Markey’s astonishing turn around from trailing by double digits to winning by double digits (or almost double digits depending on the final count).

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The Trump Administration Goes to War over 5G, with Itself

(A somewhat sorter version of this appeared on the blog of my employer Public Knowledge)

If you have followed anything in the wireless world, you will have heard about 5G – the next generation of wireless technology. Technologists promise it will revolutionize our lives by enabling everything from gigabit mobile downloads to self-driving cars. Conspiracy theorists falsely warn it causes coronavirus and kills bees. Perhaps most impressively, however, 5G bridges the hyper-partisan divide in Washington, D.C. Ask anyone who does wireless policy and they will tell you that America absolutely needs to roll out 5G as quickly as possible, usually with dire warnings added that if we don’t move quickly, China will end up “winning the race to 5G.” President Trump himself has repeatedly emphasized that he wants the United States to lead in 5G and even 6G. True, 6G doesn’t actually exist, but this enthusiasm shows how seriously the Trump Administration takes moving forward on the Federal Communications Commission’s “5G Fast Plan” to open huge swaths of wireless spectrum necessary to support 5G technology.

 

It may therefore surprise you that the one discordant note in the 5G chorus over the last three years keeps coming from within the Trump Administration itself. Federal agencies have mounted an increasingly public campaign against the FCC and the wireless industry. It’s to the point that every FCC announcement of new 5G spectrum is now met with a different federal agency’s announcement that the FCC’s decision will interfere with vital life-protecting services. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) claims that 5G will cause serious interference to weather prediction (it hasn’t). The Department of Transportation claims that 5G will interfere with collision avoidance systems (again, despite recent FCC authorizations for use of this spectrum to boost connectivity during the COVID-19 lockdown, it hasn’t). 

 

Things have now come to an all-out war between the Department of Defense and the FCC, with the Defense Department claiming that a recent decision by the FCC (on a 5-0 bipartisan vote) resolving a decades-long dispute with a company now called Ligado will interfere with vital GPS operations. (The DoD runs the nation’s GPS satellites for military operations, despite the public’s ubiquitous use of GPS.) While the Ligado decision is only a small part of the “5G Fast Plan,” it has split the Trump Administration at the Cabinet level – where Secretary of State Pompeo and Attorney General Barr have supported the FCC and Defense Secretary Esper has attacked the decision. This turf battle has spilled over into Congress, with members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committee issuing dueling statements with members of the Commerce Committee (which has jurisdiction over the FCC). Unless contained, this 5G civil war threatens to paralyze the FCC spectrum process and the rollout of new spectrum for 5G.

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Memorial: Henry Geller, Public Interest Champion and Pioneer: 1924-2020.

On April 7, one of the great giants of public interest in telecommunications law and advocacy died. Henry Geller, the first Administrator of the National Telecommunications Information Administration  and the General Counsel of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during its activist phase around equal opportunity, banning cigarette advertising, and implementing the Fairness Doctrine. Henry died at age 96, a good long run.

 

It is perhaps understandable that Henry’s death should go largely unnoticed in the current coronavirus crisis. I have so far seen only one publicly available obituary Henry had been sidelined by illness associated with his age for years and in the age of broadband and digital platforms his advocacy for greater representation and more diverse ownership of broadcast media and promotion of children’s television will seem quaint or of little meaning to many in the era of Twitch and TikTok. But I would be remiss if I did not add my personal reminiscence and resect to those published by other colleagues (here and here).

 

I met Henry Geller when I joined Media Access Project back in 1999. It is perhaps difficult for people to understand what the world of “media reform”  and tech policy were like in the highly complacent 1990s and into the 00s. What had been a vibrant sector of public advocacy in the 1960s and 1970s around civil rights and public interest obligations of broadcasters and an effort to unleash the democratizing potential of cable television (As Asst. Secretary of Commerce for NTIA, Henry Geller famously recommended that cable operators be common carriers; the proposal, like many of Henry’s progressive proposals, was rejected) had withered to a handful of true believers fighting to protect the remaining public interest obligations and a handful of pro-diversity and pro-competition obligations in the 1992 Cable Act and 1996 Telecom Act. The Adarand and Lutheran Church decisions eliminated explicit race-conscious efforts to promote diversity in ownership or employment in broadcasting. The great pushback against “corporate media” for selling the American people the Iraq War was in the unforeseeable future. It was an easy time to become discouraged and abandon any hope for the future of broadcasting as anything other than a vast, corporate wasteland dedicated to cross-promoting products and promoting an increasingly ideological deregulatory agenda.

 

In all this, Henry Geller remained a happy warrior for change. But importantly, he was not in favor of simply trying to do the same thing over and over. He was constantly looking for new strategies. By the time I met him, his big proposal was to try to reallocate money from the planned DTV spectrum auction to become a permanent funding source for educational children’s television. Nor was Henry naive about how the FCC had allowed the definition of “children’s television” to be morality plays and thinly disguised commercials rather than more substantive education. But he was a big believer in acknowledging the failures of the past and trying to learn from them. Nor did his hopes for big and new solutions prevent him from paying attention to the details of ongoing fights, such as MAP’s continuing efforts to push cable ownership limits and program access rules.

 

And unlike many older policy proponents, Henry immediately grasped both the importance of broadband and new technologies to achieve traditional public interest goals of promoting diversity of views, racial diversity, and children’s educational content. Every time I talked to him over the 20 years I knew him, he was eager to hear about the latest technology and policy developments and discuss strategy. Especially in the early days of my career, when you could count the number of people in the traditional media reform community on your fingers and the number of folks interested in broadband on one hand, talking to an established elder of the community who didn’t feel we needed to constrain our thinking to the “pragmatic” and that we had to be looking for new, big ideas was a lifeline to sanity. Henry was not just encouraging of thinking about how to approach public interest problems in new ways. He was challenging in a positive way when much of what was left of the movement 9and before its resurgence) saw cynicism for wisdom. At every MAP board meeting, and in every conversation, he was prepared to ask how this related to our mission to promote diversity in the marketplace of ideas and universal access to information from the widest possible perspectives. Always he would push us to understand how our projects — from pushing for a low-power radio service to expanding unlicensed spectrum access — would give voice to the voiceless and opportunities to the marginalized.

 

Henry was an inspiration. Even as his age caught up with him and his fiscal frailty made it harder for him to participate in the advocacy which was his life, he remained mentally sharp and actively engaged. I never had a conversation with Henry Geller that wasn’t worth having. It is sad to think I’ll never have another.

 

Stay tuned . . .

Want to Keep America Home? Give Everyone Free Basic Broadband.

This originally appeared in substantially similar form on the blog of my employer Public Knowledge.

 

Medical experts agree that the most important thing we can do to support the efforts against the COVID-19 outbreak is a medical protocol known by the acronym STHH, or “Stay the Heck Home.” (Yes, I know how it’s usually written.) To keep Americans home, we need everyone to have broadband. It’s really that simple. Without telework, the economy would shut down completely. We would lose half a school year without distance education. But the value of everyone having a residential broadband connection goes well beyond that in the current crisis. Want to keep people off the streets to flatten the curve? Make it possible for them to shop online? Want them to access forms to receive government aid during this economic crisis? Cut down on physical doctor appointments to avoid infecting others? Fill out the 2020 Census so we don’t need armies of Census Takers going door-to-door? That all takes broadband.

 

But most importantly, human beings are social creatures. If you want to make it as easy as possible for human beings to stay in their homes, you need to make it possible for them to visit each other virtually. Always make it as easy as possible for people to do what you want them to do, and the STHH protocol requires lots and lots of people to do something entirely unnatural to human beings — stay socially isolated for an indefinite period of time that may last months. Virtual visits may not be as good as the real thing, but a video call with parents or grandchildren can do a great deal to relieve stress when you are stuck inside.

 

Unfortunately, as most folks know, the U.S. has some of the most expensive broadband in the developed world. Even with broadband providers signing the “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” to not disconnect anyone or charge late fees for the next 60 days, we will still see millions of unemployed Americans potentially accumulating significant past-due bills for a connection they desperately need in order to avoid getting sick. Nor does this help the estimated 18 million Americans who live in areas with broadband available but remain offline because they can’t afford a connection. Finally, the uncomfortable elephant in the room is that this may last much longer than the 60 days covered by the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Even if we expect internet service providers to keep this promise during the entire pandemic, these are also businesses with employees. We want to support them during this economic crisis so they can pay their own employees.

 

So here is a very simple idea to persuade Americans to stay home, keep our virtual society running, and stimulate the economy. As part of the coronavirus stimulus package, the United States government should cover everyone’s broadband bill for a basic connection capable of supporting two-way video (ideally 25/25 Mbps, but we may have to settle for the Federal Communications Commission official definition of broadband of 25/3 Mbps).

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