Trump Administration Telecom Program

The Trump Administration is going to chart its own course through the tech policy issues we discuss here, as AEI’s Jeff Eisenach explained on the Communicators last Friday. The Trump Administration is going to be more free market and less regulatory than the current administration has been, to no one’s surprise. Let’s look at some the issues likely to change agency-by-agency immediately after the transition from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration is complete.

Federal Communications Commission

Many of the big deal initiatives enacted by Tom Wheeler’s FCC are likely to be short-lived. Net neutrality will survive in some form, but without the Title II baggage. The end of Title II classification for broadband networks – and the artificial separation of ISP networks from the rest of the Internet – will erase the FCC’s recent regulations around Internet advertising and move the question of privacy and consent back to the FTC.

Title II Issues

Ideally, Congress passes a bi-partisan net neutrality law that prevents future FCCs from going down the road to reclassification again. This law will provide basic protections against rent-seeking by ISPs and the other goodies in the Open Internet Order such as transparency.

We’ve already seen it because there have been attempts to pass such a bill in both the House and the Senate. It didn’t go anywhere because the pliable Mr. Wheeler was able to enact his own regulations and thus own the issue going into the election. My, how well that worked out.

Democrats are hung up on demonizing “paid prioritization,” so the there would likely be the threat of a Senate filibuster attempt to overcome. So it’s not going to be easy, but it’s doable with a Republican FCC Chairman such as Ajit Pai.

Chairman Pai (hear our podcast with him here) would be able to recast the Wheeler regulations under Title I and Section 706 of the Communications Act even without Congressional action, but that order wouldn’t necessarily do all the Net Roots want it to do. But since Net Roots activists don’t vote, that may not matter. Nonetheless, the Thune-Upton bill is ready to go.

Other Issues

The FCC’s Set Top Box order will probably never see the light of day, and if it does it will be repealed before it becomes operational. In its place we’re likely to see a voluntary program that makes cable content available to devices created by responsible parties willing to provide a reasonable level of copyright protection for creative works. We’re already in the Golden Age of original TV content and nobody with skin in the game wants to kill the Golden Goose.

The FCC’s guidance for the transition from the legacy TDM telephone network to the new broadband packet networks will probably become more practcal, as service providers will be allowed to replace old networks with new ones rather than running dual networks side-by-side for the foreseeable future as the FCC currently wants them to do.

Business Data Services (AKA “special access”) regulations will be technology-neutral and sensitive to competition. The fanciful market analysis justifying continuing micromanagement by the FCC will probably be discarded in favor of a more thorough study that doesn’t make so many controversial assumptions. This will accelerate 5G deployment, which is the the correct aim.

The FCC also has some work to do with spectrum, such as concluding the spectrum incentive auction and managing access and usage rules for non-governmental spectrum assignments generally. The Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is one such initiative that needs to be re-examined.

The FCC has several organizational issues related to staffing, budgets, and advisory committees. Obama had two people working on FCC transition, Kevin Werbach and Susan Crawford. Trump may need three or four given the extent of the agency’s issues.

Federal Trade Commission

The FTC is the general-purpose regulator of all things commercial, especially there activities engage in advertising and competition. Unlike the FCC, which is composed mainly of lawyers and engineers, the FTC is mainly economists. Hence, it tends to take a much more permissive view of legitimate activity than does the FCC. The FCC has the regulation of monopolies in its DNA, so it has a hard time seeing things for what they are.

The FTC has a gap in its authority with respect to common carrier telecom services, but that can be fixed by reclassifying broadband and VoIP away from common carrier status. The FTC wants the kind of rule-making power the FCC currently has, which may be a hard sell to a Trump Administration. Currently, FTC designs best practices as safe harbors from prosecution in areas like privacy.

This is very much like rule-making except that the FTC can’t levy fines on its own. Rather, the agency makes agreements and settlements with offending firms when it can and takes the remaining issues to court. Most of the FCC’s big rules end up in court anyhow, so once again there’s very little real difference.

The transition team will presumably get a review of issues in process to ensure continuity.

National Telecommunication and Information Administration

NTIA is the part of the Commerce Department that deals with the Internet and telecom. One of its more interesting duties is coordinating spectrum use by federal agencies, mainly the Defense Department. Most of the spectrum management it does these days is related to sharing regimes that permit government unfettered access to significant amounts of spectrum as it wishes.

The sharing systems theoretically permit commercial users on the spectrum during other times, but this has never proved highly successful. So I would expect to see a re-think of the sharing arrangements to encourage transfer of government spectrum to flexible use licensing.

NTIA is also the agency that formerly contracted – for zero dollars – with ICANN for the administration of the root zone of the Internet’s Domain Name System. ICANN now does this as it always has with one exception: it no longer needs NTIA permission to add new top-level domains such as .com, .net, or .whatever.

This transfer took place on October 1st of this year. Senator Cruz and some state attorneys general tried to stop it and candidate Trump criticized it just before it took place. But the horse is out of the barn now and it’s not coming back, so it would be best for the new administration to let it go. Whether they will or not it anyone’s guess, but any attempt to claw back the stewardship of the root zone is likely to set off a major international incident.

NTIA also serves as a coordinator for multi-stakeholder cybersecurity activities. These things are becoming more important as Internet of Things devices continue to roll out with significant security vulnerabilities as we reported in our run-down of the Mirai attack. I expect this issue will be elevated in importance.

Finally, NTIA is involved in a number of issues such as mapping broadband deployment and encouraging broadband adoption. I expect these initiatives to be scaled back in some cases and eliminated in others as they can be handled more efficiently by local and private initiatives.

Rural Utilities Service

RUS is the part of the US Department of Agriculture that deals with rural telecom, electricity, and other utilities. The area of greatest interest consists of grant and loan programs intended to extend and upgrade broadband service to rural areas. This whole program needs to restructured, targeted, and coordinated with other activities such as the FirstNet program that’s supposed to build out a public safety network from coast to coast.

Technology has moved ahead of the traditional means of building networks, so the RUS broadband program needs to catch up. Rural broadband is important because precision agriculture depends on it and we have a lot of mouths to feed. The US is also the largest exporter of grain in the world, so rural broadband programs can actually pay for themselves in increased exports.

RUS isn’t a sexy program unless you’re into precision ag and related technologies, but there’s a lot that can be done and great deal of room for improvement. I’d like the Trump Administration to make this a priority, which is only appropriate given the large role that rural America had in deciding Tuesday’s election.

The watchwords are advanced technology, self-reliance by farmers and rural towns, public-private partnerships, and creative financing. This is a natural for an administration that admires farmers and loves to see flourishing communities and businesses.

Overall Summation

The Obama Administration has tended to employ rather heavy-handed micromanagement to force outcomes in the telecommunications policy space. When these initiatives are out of step with commerce and the development of technology, they tend to be less successful and more expensive than they need be.

I suspect that the Trump Administration will pursue a freer approach to telecom services and a greater use of the leverage naturally provided by advanced technology. But it remains to be seen whether the new administration will be in line for praise or criticism as it attempts to update the nation’s telecom practices.