When it comes to who in Congress has sway over media and tech issues, look no further than Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). As chairman of the communications and technology subcommittee, Walden, a ham radio operator and former broadcaster, has been trying to get some changes at how the Federal Communications Commission does its business for the better part of three Congresses. And he’s not about to give up now.
Nor is Walden stopping with the FCC. The mild-mannered lawmaker is also ready to take on a rewrite of the entire communications law, the 80 year-old statute that hasn’t had an update since 1996—before the Internet and before mobile devices became a part of every day life.
KotH sat down with Walden before Wednesday’s mark up of 7 bills to reform FCC process. Among the changes proposed: require the agency to publish drafts of proposed rules before votes and immediately publish texts of final orders after votes.
You’ve been at FCC process reform for a while, but last month you really showed some frustration with the FCC and how it works. Why are you so fired up now?
I guess I get my dander up when I think an agency is running amuck. I just think you get better outcome on policy if you have a good process. Then at least people feel like they have an opportunity to make their case. Just some of things I’ve seen happen at the FCC, the way it’s being managed right now, isn’t as good as it could be.
Can any of the seven bills put forward get any headway?
We’ve moved from a position a year or two ago where the agency could do no wrong to [a recognition that] there are things we can do to improve the process. And you see that from members on both sides of the aisle coming forward with their ideas about how to make things more transparent, how to make the rules more available on a more timely basis.
The FCC redefined what an ISP is, it defined the minimum broadband speed, now they’re looking at redefining what an MVPD is…what’s Congress reaction to the new definitions?
That’s why I’ve about run out of patience, maybe it came through in my statement the other day.
This about about an adjusting marketplace, but I also believe it’s about how you accumulate more power. Whether you say it that way or not, it’s effectively the way it is, because you can bring more things under your purview. If you redefine the speed of the Internet you can artificially create a monopoly provider in the market, which opens the door to additional regulatory authority of how to manage that market.
They are the professional agency, but they shouldn’t be the legislative body and they’re tilting to much that way.
The FCC is so closed and so opaque. What’s wrong with publishing the rule you’re going to vote on? City councils do that. That’s why I’m so perplexed when we offer up some sort of a reform like that here it’s like oh my gosh the world would come to an end. Well it doesn’t come to an end in 10,000 cities in America and however many counties. It’s the way they do the public’s business.
What about a Congressional bill that replaces the FCC’s open Internet order? Any progress on getting Democrat support?
It’s hard. You’ve got the chairman of the FCC pushing back very hard on them not to work with us. And I think the White House probably is too. I don’t know that first hand, but you pick these things up. It’s harder politically for them to come forward. But as these [legal] challenges get filed, as they have the opportunity to absorb what this order could portend, people realize maybe they did go too far or maybe the next commission could go too far. There’s common ground yet to be had here of stopping potentially bad behavior of throttling, blocking.
What’s next for the update to the communications laws?
The first thing is Title I, to look, at the commission itself. It hasn’t been reauthorized since 1990. That’s why you’re seeing this legislation with some of the transparency and process work. To be honest, net neutrality kinda blew things up along the way. That’s a big crate in the middle of the highway we’re trying to work around. The Senate is going to start with the video piece. But there are a lot of issues, including the universal service fund and some of those things. We’re just starting. The last rewrite took decades.
What about media ownership rules?
This gets back to my whole issue on process.
What is it at [the FCC] does that doesn’t end up in court? Maybe their process is flawed.
It would be helpful if the expert agency did their job and would give us more information we could rely upon to make policy decisions. When they don’t complete what the statute requires, that causes frustration, consternation up here and we don’t benefit from the information they should give to us. Now, we can wade into those waters, and we may.
The FCC has a pending order on AM radio they can do. In most markets, it will be the more affordable channel for new entrants to buy. You go across the AM dial, you want to talk about the diversity of programming, that’s where it is. No one else is demanding [AM] spectrum, so why not let stations cover their market at night with a transmitter.
But the chairman told me he didn’t have the resources to move the order. Really you don’t have the resources to dispense with an AM radio order?
What other priorities do you have for the subcommittee?
We’re continuing our look at finding additional spectrum that can be made available in the marketplace. The success of the AWS-3 auction is good, although we’re doing our due diligence on the designated entity issue. So we’ll meet with the parties and figure out if Dish followed the law or didn’t follow the law. It’s clear there are some issues here. Charlie Ergen told the FCC it was what he was doing before the auction.
Because of the importance to public safety. We want to make sure First Net gets built out properly. We’ll do some more oversight there.
We’re having difficulty getting the documentation from the FCC that underpins their decision making [to close 16 of 24 field offices]. They’re not being very cooperative on that. They gave us four slides, but not the underlying documentation. [The FCC] is playing hide the law.