House Commerce Committee members had pointed questions for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Thursday during an oversight hearing. Pai’s news Wednesday of the agency’s plans to create a $9 billion 5G rural fund generated a lot of questions about where that money would come from. Ranking member Greg Walden (R-OR) admonished the Chairman to give lawmakers, “a little more notice and communication” on future announcements.
Several lawmakers also questioned the agency’s decision not to prosecute carriers (such as Verizon, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular) for apparently giving false broadband coverage data to the FCC. Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) said the Commission’s “bungled” process means rural residents will wait even longer to get broadband.
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) said: “Many people buy their phones based on those [coverage] maps. Why in the world would they not be held accountable?”
Pai replied, “The maps we had were simply inaccurate. That’s why we chose to close down the process.” Earlier this week, agency officials told reporters the staff felt the carriers didn’t deliberately provide bad 4G data.
Doyle pressed Pai on when lawmakers would see the results of the FCC’s investigation. Pai said he’d get the information that was left out of what was publicly released and pass it on by the end of January. He clarified bad 4G coverage data doesn’t impact what the agency needs for 5G, and that the Commission wants to get public input early.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel stressed: “We need maps before money,” meaning have accurate data concerning where the subsidies should go before handing out grants to carriers.
Some panel members questioned Pai’s plans to reallocate some 5.9 GHz spectrum reserved for auto safety purposes. Indeed, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao asked Pai to keep the band reserved for vehicle communications technology just two days before he announced his plan to carve out the lower 45 MHz for unlicensed WiFi use.
Pai said much of the band has largely gone unused for decades. “This is unacceptable,” he said, which is why the agency at its meeting next week is planning to propose allowing unlicensed operations in the lower portion of the band via WiFi. It plans to seek public input on retaining the upper portion of the band for auto safety communications via Dedicated Short Range Communications, and whether to allow Cellular Vehicle to Everything operations in the upper 20 MHz of the band.
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the issue is important because estimates show 80 percent of commercial wireless traffic will be carried on WiFi in the coming years. “We’re talking about trillions of benefits to the economy.”
The hearing wasn’t all about bashing the FCC. Several lawmakers praised Pai for choosing a public auction option for the upcoming re-purposing of 200 MHz of C-band spectrum for wireless use.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief
December 6, 2019