WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler let politicians know there’s still plenty of distance between his “unlock the box” and cable’s “ditch the box” efforts.
As expected, the issue was a hot button at last week’s marathon House Communications Subcommittee FCC oversight hearing — one that lasted over three hours.
Wheeler made it clear that he liked the idea of the industry’s willingness to negotiate, but he was not particularly sanguine on the proposal itself. Still, he got encouragement from legislators on both sides of the aisle to find common ground with stakeholders concerned about content and privacy protections.
In fact, when asked directly about the cable plan he called it a press release, not a proposal. From what he could tell from that one-pager, Wheeler added, it would mean that cable subscriber would need a new gateway device for every TV. He said that was comparable to a second box, which he knew the subcommittee wasn’t keen on.
But Wheeler got plenty of encouragement from the legislators to find some new, common ground, and the signal that the U.S. Copyright Office was concerned about the impact of his proposal on the value of content.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told Wheeler she had had meetings with members of the Copyright Office, then asked whether he thought that his proposal would render content worthless. He said no, as did Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the other two FCC Democrats who voted for his proposal. But Rosenworcel, who has said she thought the proposal needed work, said she, too, had talked to the office and heard similar concerns.
Blackburn also got a bipartisan majority — Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Reilly and Rosenworcel — to agree the Wheeler proposal was flawed.
THROW OUT THE LIFELINE
Waste, fraud and abuse in the FCC’s Lifeline broadband subsidy program drew sparks as Republicans and Democrats butted heads.
Republicans, including FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, have been talking up a $500 million figure for “potential” fraud in the program due to duplicate subscriptions from the same address. They want a cap on the fund, which Wheeler said last week would be a disincentive to provide the subsidized service.
Cable operators and most large telecoms oppose Wheeler’s lifeline reform because it could mean new price regulations. But Democrats were ready to rumble over the charge.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) came armed with his own study countering that $500 million waste, fraud and abuse assertion and Wheeler was ready with some stats of his own.
The Democrats’ study asserted that the figure included multiple-household addresses such as veterans’ homes, nursing homes and homeless shelters. That number could also include many younger people living together for economic reasons, which would tend to select for the lower incomes the subsidy targets.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, called the Republicans’ charge of waste, fraud and abuse shameful. Under some tough questioning, commissioner Ajit Pai acknowledged that he was only talking about potential abuse, but that that was why he said there needed to be more fact finding.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the subcommittee chairman, signaled there would likely be at least one more oversight hearing before the end of the year.