Money, Spectrum Dominate FCC Nominee Hearing

UPDATE Four nominees to the FCC faced lawmakers on the Commerce Committee Thursday, a necessary step on the road to potential Senate confirmation. In January, Anita Gomez joined the State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy to lead U.S. preparations for the International Telecommunication Union World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23). She also serves as a Senior Advisor for International Information and Communications Policy. Gomez attracted many questions. 

President Biden recently nominated Gomez to fill the empty Democratic seat on the Commission. Commissioners Geoffrey Starks and Brendan Carr testified as well, since they’ve been renominated. And so did Fara Damelin, who’s now Chief of Staff for the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Her role is to root out waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars. She’s been nominated to fill the Inspector General position for the FCC. 

Ray Lujan (D-NM) chairs the Communications, Media & Broadband Subcommittee. He said Gomez is “deeply qualified” to be on the FCC, noting that she’d be the first Latina to serve as a Commissioner since Gloria Tristani left more than 20 years ago. “We owe it to our children to have a fully functioning FCC,” he said. 

Gomez has worked in communications policy for nearly 30 years. She cited her previous stints at the FCC, NTIA, the White House and the committee, as especially helpful in preparing her for the role of Commissioner.

Gomez also cited personal experience in preparing her for a role in public service. Just before she was to begin college, her father was laid off and tried to “start something on his own,” but her family “lost everything,” Gomez testified. She said her family didn’t have the money for her tuition so she worked, borrowed and paid her way through college and law school.

Those times gave her an especial affinity for understanding the need for affordable broadband, Gomez noted, testifying, “I have experienced the fear of not being able to pay a telephone bill,” calling the need to get everyone connected “vital.”

Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) noted that Gomez is currently the State Department’s point person for the upcoming WRC-23 talks. The senator asked whether Gomez could handle both positions, or, if her seating as a Commissioner should be delayed. “It’s vitally important for the U.S. to be in a position of strength” at the talks, especially in terms of mid-band spectrum, “which is going to be vital to 5G and 6G as we move forward,” said Blackburn.

“With regard to my current role, I can assure you the State Department is doing contingency planning [if she’s confirmed],” Gomez answered.

John Hickenlooper (D-CO) asked Commissioner Geoffrey Starks what could happen if the $3 billion shortfall in the Rip & Replace program “isn’t quickly fixed.”

Starks replied: “If we don’t fund this, many of those small carriers are going to have to make a decision to either leave [untrusted gear] in their networks, or take this on their own,” meaning pay for removing Huawei and ZTE gear themselves. Or they could shut down, he said, noting that either option “would hurt consumers,” because “these small carriers don’t have the funds.”

John Thune (R-SD) asked Carr what else the FCC can do to speed broadband deployments, noting that “eliminating burdensome regulations” helped ease small cell installations. “We can’t make people wait two more years to see the benefits of broadband because of paperwork.”

Carr echoed fixes the agency did for small cells, and cited shot clocks in particular for localities to make decisions within shorter time-frames on build permits. Carr also said the new FCC broadband maps have improved, but added: “We have to stay on it. That means working with state broadband offices” to implement BEAD funding. The differences between version one and version two of the maps “are quite substantial,” he added.

Ted Budd (R-NC) noted that 90 percent of the 2.5 GHz licenses won at auction last summer haven’t been issued by the agency. “The Chair seems to think the FCC can’t issue the licenses because its auction authority lapsed,” he said.

“I think the FCC authority is clear. Our section 309A authority continues,” Carr said. “If the FCC issues those licenses people can get [broadband] service virtually overnight. I think it’s something we should do.”

Jerry Moran (R-VA) asked if there are other tools the agency could use to issue the licenses. Carr suggested using STAs, which are temporary licenses, however he added, “I don’t see any movement at the FCC to do that.”

Peter Welch (D-VT) added levity to the hearing when he proclaimed: “We’re going to get something done. You all are doing a good job! But don’t quote me on that.” Turning more serious, he added: “The issues aren’t easy but ultimately working together is the way to go.” 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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