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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The T-Mobile Data Breach and Your Basic Primer on CPNI – Part II: How Will the FCC Investigate T-Mo’s Data Breach?

In Part I, I provided all the legal and political background to understand why the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) investigation into T-Mobile’s data breach impacting about 53 million existing customers, former customers, and folks who applied for credit checks but never have been customers, may be complicated politically. But what are the mechanics of the investigation? How does this actually work? What are the rules, and what remedies or penalties can the FCC impose on T-Mobile?

 

I explore these questions below . . . . .

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The T-Mobile Data Breach and Your Basic Primer on CPNI – Part I: The Major Background You Need to Know for This to Make Sense.

T-Mobile announced recently that it experienced a major cybersecurity breach, exposing personal information (including credit card numbers) for at least 53 million customers and former customers. Because T-Mobile is a Title II mobile phone provider, this automatically raises the question of whether T-Mobile violated the FCC’s Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) rules. These rules govern, among other things, the obligation of telecommunications service providers to protect CPNI and how to respond to a data breach when one occurs. The FCC has confirmed it is conducting an investigation into the matter.

 

It’s been a long time since we’ve had to think about CPNI, largely because former FCC Chair Ajit Pai made it abundantly clear that he thought the FCC should not enforce privacy rules. Getting the FCC to crack down on even the most egregious violations – such as selling super accurate geolocation data to bounty hunters was like pulling teeth. But back in the Wheeler days, CPNI was a big deal, with Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc terrorizing incumbents by actually enforcing the law with real fines and stuff (and much to the outrage of Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Mike O’Reilly). Given that Jessica Rosenworcel is now running the Commission, and both she and Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks are both strong on consumer protection generally and privacy protection in particular, it seems like a good time to fire up the long disused CPNI neurons with a review of how CPNI works and what might or might not happen in the T-Mo investigation.

 

Before diving in, I want to stress that getting hacked and suffering a data breach is not, in and of itself, proof of a rule violation or cause for any sort of fine or punishment. You can do everything right and still get hacked. But the CPNI rules impose obligations on carriers to take suitable precautions to protect CPNI, as well as obligations on what to do when a carrier discovers a breach. If the FCC finds that T-Mobile acted negligently in its data storage practices, or failed to follow appropriate procedures, it could face a substantial fine in addition to the FCC requiring it to come up with a plan to prevent this sort of hack going forward.

 

Assuming, of course, that the breach involved CPNI at all. One of the fights during the Wheeler FCC involved what I will call the “broad” view of CPNI v. the “narrow” view of CPNI. Needless to say, I am an advocate of the “broad” view, and think that’s a proper reading of the law. But I wouldn’t be providing an accurate primer if I didn’t also cover the “narrow” view advanced by the carriers and Pai and O’Reilly.

 

Because (as usual) actually understanding what is going on and its implications requires a lot of background, I’ve broken this up into 2 parts. Part I gives the basic history and background of CPNI, and why this provides the first test of how the Biden FCC will treat CPNI enforcement. Part II will look at application of the FCC’s rules to the T-Mobile breach and what issues are likely to emerge along the way.

 

More below . . .

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Does the Amazon “Drone Cam” Violate the FCC’s Anti-Eavesdropping Rule? And If It Does, So What?

Folks may have heard about the new Amazon prototype, the Ring Always Home Cam. Scheduled for release in early 2021, the”Drone Cam” will run a pattern of flight around your house to allow you to check on things when you are away. As you might imagine, given a history of Amazon’s Alexa recording things without permission, the announcement generated plenty of pushback among privacy advocates. But what attracted my attention was this addendum at the bottom of the Amazon blog post:

“As with other devices at this stage of development, Ring Always Home Cam has not been authorized as required by the rules of the Federal Communications Commission. Ring Always Home Cam is not, and may not be, offered for sale or lease or sold or leased, until authorization is obtained.”

 

A number of folks asked me why this device needs FCC authorization. In general, any device that emits radio-frequency radiation as part of its operation requires certification under 47 U.S.C. 302a and Part 15 of the FCC’s rules (47 C.F.R. 15.1, et seq.) In addition, devices that incorporate unlicensed spectrum capability (e.g., like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth) need certification from the FCC to show that they do not exceed the relevant power levels or rules of operation. So mystery easily solved. But this prompted me to ask the following question. “Does the proposed Amazon “Drone Cam” violate the FCC’s rule against using electronic wireless devices to record or listen to conversation without consent?

 

As I discuss below, this would (to my knowledge) be a novel use of 47 C.F.R. 15.9. It’s hardly a slam dunk, especially with an FCC that thinks it has no business enforcing privacy rules. But we have an actual privacy law on the books, and as the history of the rule shows the FCC intended it to prevent the erosion of personal privacy in the face of rapidly developing technology — just like this. If you are wondering why this hasn’t mattered until now, I will observe that — to the best of my knowledge — this is the only such device that relies exclusively on wireless technology. The rule applies to the use of wireless devices, not to all devices certified under the authority of Section 302a* (which did not exist until 1982).

 

I unpack this, and how the anti-eavesdropping rule might impact the certification or operation of home drone cams and similar wireless devices, below . . .

 

*technically, although codified at 47 USC 302a, the actual Section number in the Comms Act is Section 302. Long story not worth getting into here. But I will use 302a for consistency’s sake.

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Another Massive Hurricane, Another Chance for the FCC to Do Nothing — and Why Congress Must Pass the RESILIENT Act.

When I was growing up, I used to hear the nursery rhyme about the itsy bitsy spider climbing the waterspout, getting washed out, and then doing the exact same thing again. Whereas most people I have encountered regard this little jingle as a pean of praise to perseverance, I always thought it was a warning about what happens when you refuse to learn from past experience. Seriously spider dude, it’s a rain pipeReality does not care about your rugged determination and individualism. You need to take a lesson from the ant with the rubber tree plant and stop wasting time.

 

I bring this up as, once again, we have wildfires in California with rolling blackouts and massive hurricanes hitting the Gulf Coast — both of which have historically caused major telecom outages (although so far the infrastructure appears to be holding up). Rather than learn from these experiences over the last three years, the Pai FCC has become famous for it’s three-part Republican harmony version of the Itsy Bitsy Spider (telecom version) while the Democratic Commissioners are relegated to feeling the Cassandrefreude. So I will take this opportunity to plug the “Reenforcing and Evaluating Service Integrity, Local Infrastructure, and Emergency Notification for Today’s Networks Act” (aka the RESILIENT Act (section by section by section analysis here, press release here).

 

Briefly, Congress ought to pass the RESILIENT Act as quickly as possible. Neither the FCC nor state governments have taken the needed steps to update our regulations governing repair of physical networks to reflect modern network construction. The biggest change — that communications networks are no longer self-powered — requires that the FCC and the Department of Energy (DOE) (through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)) to work together to require power companies and telecom companies to coordinate. That takes federal legislation. But we also need to recognize that we can’t require every network to maintain reliability on its own. We need networks to use the redundancy that comes from having competing networks to provide the reliability we used to have from a highly regulated monopoly provider.

 

I explain more below . . .

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We Can #ConnectTribes to Broadband, and YOU Can Help!

One of the unusual plot twists of this season on Spectrum Wars has been my agreeing more and more with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. For those familiar with Babylon 5, this is rather like how G’Kar and Londo started working together by the end of Season 4 despite attacking each other’s home planets at various points in Seasons 1, 2 & 3. But as I like to say: “Always prepare for the best possible result.” Mind you, this doesn’t change all the things on which I vociferously oppose the current FCC. But I’m hoping to extend the spectrum streak into August.

 

Which brings me to one of the most important developments for connectivity for Native American Tribes, Alaskan Native villages and Native Hawaiian communities: the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window (TPW). This gives federally recognized Tribes on rural Tribal lands the opportunity to apply for free spectrum licenses in one of bands best suited for 5G. Tribes that receive these licenses will have the capability to build out their own 5G networks, bringing real, reliable and affordable broadband to communities that have the worst broadband access in the United States. Unfortunately, the application window closes on August 3. Because of the horrific impact of COVID-19 on Native American communities (rural Native American Communities have suffered worse economic and social impacts of COVID-19 than any other community in the United States, aggravated by the severe lack of broadband access), hundreds of eligible Tribes will not be able to meet the August 3 deadline to apply (less than 20% of the approximately 515 eligible federally recognized tribes on rural Tribal lands are expected to be able to apply under the current deadline, based on an estimate by MuralNet.org).

 

Tribal organizations such as National Congress of American Indians, The Southern California Chairmen’s Tribal Association, Native Public Media, and AMERIND Risk Management (a Tribal owned corporation chartered under federal law) are working with my employer, Public Knowledge, to request the FCC to extend the window until February 3, 2021. As I explain below, this will benefit hundreds of Tribes and their communities, while harming no one. But best of all, you can help! Here’s how:

 

Tell your member of Congress to tell the FCC to extend the 2.5 GHz Tribal Priority Window. You can do that by going to the Public Knowledge #ConnectTribes action tool here.

 

Tell the FCC to extend the 2.5 GHz TPW. The Docket Number for this proceeding is 18-120. Simply head over to the FCC Express Comment page and tell the FCC in your own words that Tribes deserve a real chance to apply for wireless broadband licenses on their own sovereign Tribal lands so they can provide Tribal households and businesses with the broadband they need and deserve.

 

Participate in the #ConnectTribes Day of Action on Thursday, JULY 23 (TOMORROW!). One of the biggest problems is that no one outside of a very small set of telecom wonks and Native activists knows about this situation and why the FCC needs to extend the TPW until February 3. Tweet or otherwise use social media with the hashtag #ConnectTribes to raise the profile of this issue. We are planning a “Day of Action” this Thursday, July 23 to get this trending — but please keep using the hashtag to support Tribal connectivity until August 3.

 

More below . . .

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