The members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) faced tough questioning in their first appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee in over two years. In its hearing to explore the current communications marketplace, the committee, now in Democratic control, used the hearing to examine a number of telecommunications issues. The Democrats also made it clear that the FCC can expect more scrutiny and oversight from the committee in the coming years.
The opening statement delivered by Chairman Martin proclaimed that "the state of the communications industry is strong." The chairman then described the achievements of the communications industry over the past several years, devoting particular attention to the general decrease in telecommunications costs for consumers. Chairman Martin did question, however, why prices for basic cable services have continued to escalate. He went on to outline an ambitious agenda for the commission, with emphasis on (1) increasing access to communications services (including efforts to spur broadband deployment); (2) continuing to provide real choices for consumers (including the promotion of video service competition); and (3) continuing to protect consumers and private information.
Commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert M. McDowell largely praised the efforts of the commission, and both discussed initiatives they would like to see undertaken. Commissioner McDowell noted with pleasure the efforts of the commission to spur unlicensed use of white spaces. He also cited the recent Video Services Order as one of the FCC's achievements during his short tenure. Commissioner Tate spoke at some length about the media ownership review currently underway and expressed hope that the development of new media and the Internet would be reflected in any new ownership rules.
Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein were more critical of the current state of the media marketplace. Commissioner Copps argued that it is past time for the FCC to adopt more stringent public interest standards for broadcasters, a thought seconded by Commissioner Adelstein. Commissioner Adelstein also told the committee that it should be the mission of the FCC to enforce all of the laws under its jurisdiction, including those pertaining to indecency, payola, video news releases and sponsorship identification.
Many members of the committee expressed some displeasure with the FCC's current approach to media issues. Senators Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), Byron L. Dorgan (D-SD), Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) all questioned the chairman at length on the public interest standards that should be applied to broadcasters. These members expressed their belief that the commission should adopt and impose stringent public interest requirements on broadcasters and wondered why the commission had all but abandoned its role in ensuring that holders of broadcast licenses operate in the public interest. Chairman Martin, in response to this questioning, conceded that he would like to see the FCC gather more information from broadcasters about their public interest efforts during license renewals. He also conceded that the voluntary standards adopted by the media industry last fall were not enough to assuage many of the problems that prompted the standards. In particular, Chairman Martin indicated some discomfort with the content of the voluntary standards, as well as the educational efforts that have been undertaken thus far by the industry. The chairman, however, was opposed to any rules that would impose specific public interest obligations on broadcasters. Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, in contrast, argued that it was past time for the commission to adopt specific obligations like those imposed during the 1960s and 1970s.
Other members posed questions about other mass media efforts at the commission:
- Senators John E. Sununu (R-NH) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) queried the panel on the status of the FCC's white spaces initiatives.
- Senator Sununu, in particular, was concerned with whether the commission should issue licenses for white spaces use. Both the chairman and Commissioner Copps stated that their preference would be for unlicensed use.
- Senator Sununu has introduced a bill (S. 337) that would impose certain obligations on the use of white spaces and would give the commission the option to issue licenses for white spaces use.
- Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) asked the chairman to begin a proceeding to update its V-Chip rules to reflect changes in technology.
- Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Cantwell made pointed comments about the ongoing media ownership proceeding.
- Senator McCaskill expressed her hope that the specific media ownership rule changes proposed by the commission would be subject to public comment, a step to which the chairman was not prepared to commit. Senator Cantwell asked that any ownership studies be subject to public comment, a move that the chairman supported.
- Senator Dorgan argued that the FCC should go further toward protecting "Internet freedom," his term for net neutrality. The senator has introduced a bill (S. 215) that would impose specific net neutrality obligations on broadband network operators.
The commissioners were scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet on February 15, but that hearing has been postponed.