Internet Issues Front and Center in Ross Confirmation Hearing
What do fisheries and broadband have in common? Not much apart from their dominance of the Wilbur Ross confirmation hearing. Several senators all the way from Alaska to Connecticut are concerned about fishing quotas, some of which are set by NOAA, a division of the Commerce Department. But others are concerned about broadband and Internet governance, where another Commerce division, NTIA, is active.
Ross discussed spectrum and rural broadband in his opening statement, setting the stage for the discussion to come. He committed to trying to pry spectrum out of the hands of government users who don’t actually need as much as they have, and offered that more commercial spectrum could help bring broadband to rural users.
Most government spectrum is in the hands of the Defense Department, so there’s not much a Commerce Secretary can do. But NOAA is a Commerce agency, as well as a major user of spectrum, so the promise wasn’t empty. Ross also has some interesting experience with muni fiber in his home community, which should be heartening to the dark fiber crowd.
Seeking Help with Rural Broadband
Senator Wicker asked Ross for help on rural broadband deployment, an important goal that generally falls outside Commerce’s reach. The FCC administers the Universal Service Fund and the USDA administers the Rural Utilities Service, the two most important programs. NTIA does take part in data gathering (as does the Census Bureau, another Commerce division) and runs the Broadband USA program for muni networks.
One of the problems with rural broadband is the sheer number of government agencies and departments involved: 25 to be exact. Not surprisingly, a lot of what goes on in DC around rural broadband is coordination among these many players. Ross showed awareness of the complex interaction among the agencies and the inability of the Commerce Department to solve the rural broadband problem on its own.
When Sen. Schatz raised the European Privacy Shield and asked for a commitment of continuity, Ross correctly demurred. He cited “tensions between privacy and the localization of data, which affects the way the Internet functions.” This answer is insightful, actually quite more so than the question itself. The privacy shield has been raised as a reason to leave the FCC’s current privacy regulations in place, but I suspect that’s a red herring.
Reversing the IANA Transition
Members also asked Ross about negating the handoff of the IANA functions to ICANN that took place in September, but he was sufficiently well-informed on the issue to explain that the horse is out of the barn. This puts his knowledge of IANA above that of many members of the Commerce Committee, which is quite impressive.
Senator Cruz in particular is still concerned – and somewhat confused – about the IANA transition, which he has characterized as a giveaway of the Internet to other nations. The IANA transition really has nothing to do with free speech, but Cruz continues to beat that drum as well.
Ross concluded that there’s really nothing to be done about IANA, but signaled willingness to look at any creative solutions that may arise to the hypothetical speech problem. This is one of the carryovers of the disingenuous connection of free speech to Internet policies such as net neutrality and anti-piracy. But that doesn’t make it right.
NIST and Cyber
Colorado’s distinguished Senator Gardner raised the issues of the NIST spectrum and cyber-security labs in Boulder. Gardner’s concern about NIST is maintaining the non-standards setting role of its cyber group, as he fears mandates that will inhibit cooperation between government and industry on attack mitigation. The concern is well-founded, and Ross didn’t say anything disturbing.
Senators Markey and Blumenthal also raised cybersecurity questions, to which Ross pointed out that there’s increasing awareness among consumers about the issues with cybersecurity and therefore probably not much need for Markey’s proposed labeling plan. Blumenthal asked for concurrence with his belief that the US needs to deter and punish attackers, which he got. Ross declared that we have no choice but to do the things Blumenthal wants.
Senator Cruz raised the issue of spectrum reallocation that Ross had addressed in his opening statement. Cruz’s focus was on incentivizing agencies to voluntarily release current holdings, and Ross admitted he doesn’t have the answer about how to do that. This issue has always seemed to be off the point to me.
Government agencies don’t need incentives as much as they need guidance in how to carry out their missions without massive spectrum footprints. Agencies act as they’re required to act by law and custom, so they can be ordered off their spectrum allocations.
The issue is simply continuing operations and blunting counter-lobbying to stifle reallocation. The guilty party here is generally the Defense Department, which tends to have very peculiar notions about how to use radios. Defense effectively controls NTIA, the putative government spectrum coordinator, so a more independent NTIA is a first step to taking spectrum licenses away from DoD. Ross most clearly said that the reallocation problem needs a Congressional solution, which is quite correct.
The final question, from Chairman Thune, concerned the troubled national public safety network, FirstNet. This isn’t strictly a Commerce Department problem, but it’s desperately in need of adult supervision. Ross graciously agreed to see what he could to to help. He’s going to be busy.
All in all, Ross displayed a commendable grasp of Commerce’s role and responsibilities, pressed for meaningful tax relief and deregulation, didn’t dodge any questions, and didn’t promise more than he can deliver. Not all of the Trump nominees instill confidence, but Ross appears to be an excellent candidate to lead the Commerce Department.
But whether or not you like the nominee, the nature of the questions asked of the prospective Commerce Secretary says that spectrum, broadband, and the Internet are at the heart of American commerce.