This Week: FAA publishes notice of policy on type certification of drones, Senate Commerce Committee examines role of technology in the trucking industry, FCC to vote on TV “White Space” updates to boost rural broadband, Harvard Research Center calls for return of Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

Week in Review

The Senate impeachment trial came to an end this week with the Senate voting on Wednesday to acquit President Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The vote largely came down along party lines, with the exception of Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), who joined Democrats in voting to convict for abuse of power.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) introduced a bill last Tuesday that would provide support to Puerto Rico following a series of earthquakes that rocked the island. The bill would provide over $4.5 billion in aid to the US territory, with $3.26 billion going to a community development block grant for long term disaster relief. In addition, the bill would provide millions in aid for the infrastructure, education, and nutritional needs of the island’s residents.

The House voted on Thursday to pass major legislation that would significantly reform labor laws. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which was introduced by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA), would strengthen unions, redefine the words “worker” and “supervisor”, and provide legal protections to undocumented workers in the workplace.

On Tuesday, President Trump delivered his third State of the Union Address during which he restated his commitment to close the digital divide between urban areas and rural and remote areas. In a White House fact sheet issued the same day, the President touted his commitment to workforce development, including pledging jobs and education in areas like artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, cybersecurity and 5G so “workers are able to thrive in the jobs of tomorrow.”

Today, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) jointly published a request for comment on Automated Vehicles (AV) 4.0, Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicles Technology. The key difference from AV 3.0 is the expansion of scope from DOT modal administrations to 38 federal agencies that are involved in development and integration of AV technology. Comments are to be submitted to the docket by April 2.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAS), resurrected by executive order on October 22, 2019, held its first working meeting Monday and Tuesday, during which it discussed its near-term focus on quantum computing, AI, 5G telecommunications, advanced manufacturing, and synthetic biology as the prime industries of the future. The White House tasked the council with developing a five-year plan to accelerate the development of these industries. Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), chairs the Council and there are currently ten other appointed members, a number which is expected to grow.

Looking Ahead

The House and Senate are both in session next week, but will recess the following week coinciding with Presidents Day. With the impeachment trial over, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has teed up a number of pending nominations for consideration.

President Trump will release his fiscal year 2021 budget on Monday. The budget is generally seen as the administration’s wishlist for Congress to consider for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on October 1. Several congressional committees will begin hearings on the FY21 budget and appropriations next week.

President Trump is scheduled to travel to India the week of February 23 for an official state visit. He is expected to spend two days with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, as well as make a trip to the Taj Mahal. Central to this visit will be trade. The two leaders are expected to sign a limited trade deal, and Indian officials are likely to push Trump to restore the country’s preferential trade status, which would lower tariffs on a myriad of Indian exports.

DOJ will hold a Section 230 workshop on February 19 to discuss the law’s “expansive interpretation by the courts, its impact on the American people and business community, and whether improvements to the law should be made.” Following the workshop, which is open to the public, policy stakeholders will be invited to participate in listening sessions to further discuss the law and the impact that reforming it would have.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are extending the February 11 deadline for comments on the draft Vertical Merger Guidelines. The deadline is now February 26. The FTC and DOJ also announced two upcoming joint public workshops on the Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines on March 11 and March 18.

FAA Publishes Notice of Policy on Type Certification of Drones

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published a Notice of Policy in Monday’s Federal Register seeking comments on its plan to use the “special class” category to provide type certification for small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones. The special class category, per 14 CFR 21.17(b), applies to aircraft for which certification standards do not exist due to their unique, novel, or unusual design features. The FAA will use this category for UAS that will conduct package delivery operations, regardless of the weight of the drone. This policy does not address the need for commercial package delivery operators to obtain operator certification. This policy also does not address type certification for UAS carrying passengers. Comments are due no later than March 4.

Senate Commerce Committee Examines Role of Technology in the Trucking Industry

On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety met to hear from representatives of advocacy groups, industry associations, and law enforcement on the status of the American trucking industry. The discussion covered a number of issues including spectrum usage, advancements in vehicle technology, and regulations affecting the industry. The CEO of the American Trucking Associations, Chris Spear, urged Congress to preserve the 75 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band currently designated for safety. Currently, the FCC is moving to reallocate the spectrum for unlicensed uses.

Senators also expressed interest in topics such as autonomous vehicles, universal electronic identifiers, and speed limiters, all of which are becoming more commonplace in the trucking industry. Finally, senators and panelists discussed how federal regulations on trucking have impacted the industry. A number of senators raised concerns over regulations barring drivers under 21 from crossing state lines, and several panelists expressed their frustration with regulations governing driving hours, safety technology, and training.

FCC to Vote on TV “White Space” Updates to Boost Rural Broadband

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai said the Commission will vote on freeing unlicensed TV white spaces (TVWS) for broadband on February 28. The debate over TVWS stretches back at least a decade. Specifically, Chairman Pai’s proposal calls for permitting higher transmit power and higher antennas for fixed white space devices in rural areas, allowing white space devices to reach users at greater distances and by better penetrating obstacles. The proposal would permit higher power mobile operations within geofenced areas and proposes rule revisions to facilitate the development of new and innovative narrowband Internet of Things-based services. TV white space devices operate in portions of the broadcast television bands (channels 2-35) and spectrum not being used for authorized services. School districts in some parts of the country already use TV white spaces to provide internet service to students.

Harvard Research Center Calls for Return of Congressional Office of Technology Assessment

The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation issued a report on January 30 calling for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to be reestablished. OTA operated from 1972 until it was defunded in 1995. The purpose of the OTA would be to provide members of Congress and their staffs analysis of complex scientific and technical issues, especially in light of rapidly advancing technologies such as AI, facial recognition, quantum computing and energy storage and generation.

As part of a larger effort to improve technology literacy in Congress, the report says that Congress must create new senior science and technology policy positions on committees, in personal offices, and in legislative support agencies like the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In September 2019, a bicameral bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Reps. Mark Takano (D-CA) and Bill Foster (D-IL) announced they were looking to address gaps in Congress’ technology expertise by bringing back the OTA and making it responsive to member needs.

The FCC Set to Release C-Band Draft Order

On February 6, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his C-Band (3.7-4.2 GHz) auction plan for 5G during a speech at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. The targeted start date for a public auction of 280 MHz is December 8, he said, adding that the relocation costs for incumbents, an estimated $3 billion to $5billion, would be covered by auction winners. In his remarks he said satellite operators should be eligible for up to $9.7 billion in accelerated relocation payments for quickly clearing the lower 100MHz in 46 of 50 partial economic areas by September 2021, and remaining 180 MHz by September 2023. Pai said the draft order would be released Friday, and voted upon at the commissioners' Feb. 28 meeting.

In addition to the FCC’s interest, a bipartisan group of lawmakers are interested in the C-Band as well. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) are working on companion legislation to a bill introduced in the Senate by Sens. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) along with ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-WA). The legislative efforts generally seek to provide the FCC with a mechanism for directly using auction proceeds to reimburse satellite companies for relocation costs, incentivize the satellite companies to relinquish their spectrum in the band and provide a separate source of funding for rural broadband deployment, next-generation 911 networks, and deficit reduction.