RPC Interview: Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr
- Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has prioritized the buildout of 5G infrastructure, worked to cut regulatory red tape, highlighted the importance of broadband jobs, and worked to expand telehealth opportunities to veterans.
- President Biden’s $100 billion broadband proposal wrongly prioritizes developing government-owned broadband networks and puts government price controls on the table.
- There are three main pieces to a winning 5G strategy: spectrum, infrastructure, and workforce.
The Federal Communications Commission plays an important role in promoting competition and innovation in the communication networks that power the digital age. To do this, the FCC pursues a variety of initiatives, such as updating nationwide broadband data maps, working to bridge the digital divide, promoting American 5G leadership, and fighting robocalls and spoofing.
The FCC is led by five commissioners who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to five-year terms. The president names the chair, and no more than three commissioners may be members of the same political party. There is currently one vacancy on the commission. President Biden named Jessica Rosenworcel, who was already serving on the commission, the acting chair in January.
Commissioner Brendan Carr is the senior Republican on the FCC. He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate in August 2017 to fill a one-year term and confirmed by voice vote in January 2019 to a full five-year term. Carr has prioritized the buildout of 5G infrastructure, worked to cut regulatory red tape, highlighted the importance of broadband jobs, and worked to expand telehealth opportunities to veterans.
Q: You have prioritized American leadership in 5G and worked to facilitate building the infrastructure needed for this technology. Why is 5G a priority? What more can/should Congress do to ensure the U.S. leads the world in 5G?
A: 5G networks will be the platforms upon which a new wave of jobs and economic opportunity will be created. Indeed, all of the life-changing technologies we hear about – from autonomous cars to smart cities, from remote surgery to virtual reality – won’t work, or won’t work well, without 5G.
There are three main pieces to a winning 5G strategy: spectrum, infrastructure, and workforce.
First, we must continue to make spectrum available to fuel 5G offerings. We’ve made a lot of progress on this front at the FCC over the last four years, but Congress can supercharge those efforts by passing legislation that ensures we continue to free up the airwaves needed for 5G.
Second, Congress can accelerate 5G builds by streamlining the permitting and other rules that govern these infrastructure builds. The FCC took action along those lines over the past four years. The results? While providers built just 708 new cell sites in 2016, that number jumped to over 46,000 in 2019 after the FCC’s reforms. Those reforms included setting shot clocks on government approval of infrastructure projects, modernizing environmental and historic preservation reviews, making it easier to replace poles where necessary to accommodate new infrastructure for 5G, and expanding the ability to build broadband on federal lands, among others. Congress should codify those and similar reforms.
Finally, to complete America’s 5G build, we need to nearly double the number of skilled telecom crews working in this country. Legislation like the Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act would help us meet this challenge head-on by creating a pipeline to fill these good-paying jobs.
Q: You have been a vocal advocate for keeping Huawei and other businesses connected to the Chinese Communist Party out of our networks and the networks of our allies. Why is it so important to ensure our networks do not contain this equipment? What effort is the FCC making in this arena? What more can Congress do?
A: For years, the U.S. has acknowledged the national security threat that Chinese telecom firms pose to our networks. Huawei, ZTE, and other entities are closely aligned with Communist China and its military apparatus. These companies are subject to Chinese law that requires them to cooperate with any request from the country’s intelligence services and to keep those requests secret. We cannot allow these companies, or others that pose a similar threat, to have a home in our networks.
At the FCC, we’ve taken steps to revoke licenses to operate in the U.S. for Chinese telecom companies that pose a national security threat. We’ve also ensured that federal funds cannot be used to purchase insecure network equipment on a going forward basis and established a program to reimburse carriers to “rip and replace” untrustworthy equipment. These are important steps that have strengthened the security and resiliency of our networks.
Moving forward, the FCC should close a glaring security loophole that allows equipment from companies deemed a national security risk to continue to be sold and operated in the U.S., provided they are purchased with private funds rather than federal dollars. We must close that loophole. It is the presence of insecure gear in our networks – not the source of funding used for the purchase – that poses the threat.
I’ve also proposed that we take action at the FCC to ensure devices authorized for use in the U.S. are not built using Uyghur forced labor. There is far more the FCC can and should do to scrutinize the supply chain for electronic devices and to ensure that Communist China is not profiting from forced labor.
The FCC can take these two actions – closing the loophole and examining the supply chain for forced labor – by updating our equipment authorization rules, and Congress could enact legislation, such as Senator Rubio’s Secure Equipment Act, that would help speed our process along.
Q: President Biden called for spending $100 billion over eight years on broadband deployment in his $2.7 trillion “infrastructure” plan. What are your thoughts generally on his proposal? Are there alternative ways to accomplish the bipartisan goal of ensuring all Americans have access to high-speed internet?
A: As many have pointed out, the lion’s share of the president’s plan has nothing to do with infrastructure. One exception I would argue is the $100 billion it proposes for broadband. That clears the definitional hurdle. The problem is the plan itself.
For one, it dedicates funds to overbuild communities that already have high-speed internet so that they can receive so-called “future proof” connections, leaving Americans with no service at all out to dry. The plan also wrongly prioritizes developing government-owned broadband networks and puts government price controls squarely on the table. Ham-handed government control will stifle investment and only make it harder to actually close the digital divide.
None of these major flaws even grapple with the fact that there’s already more than $40 billion allocated toward closing the digital divide at the FCC. Of those funds, not a single penny has even gone out yet. Our focus should be spending that money first while leveraging additional private sector investment by cutting red tape to connect unserved Americans.
Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the serious consequences of many Americans lacking access to high-speed internet at home. Congress responded by allocating billions of dollars to help close this digital divide, much of it administered by the FCC. How are these programs working?
A: When the country was seized by the COVID-19 pandemic, everyday tasks that used to be carried out in person moved online instantly – from school, to work, catching up with friends, and accessing health care. The FCC recognized the sudden shifts that the pandemic caused and immediately went to work to ensure that Americans stayed connected. We joined with the private sector to make sure that pandemic-related financial stress and our own support rules did not cut off service when Americans needed it most; closely tracked the surge in network traffic and, when necessary, took steps to expand capacity to meet demand; and expedited support for telehealth programs at a time when treating patients at a distance has never been more important.
Congress also took quick and meaningful action, including the direction of funds through three main programs overseen by the FCC. The first program, the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, was created under the CARES Act and received additional funding for a second round in December 2020. When stay-at-home orders were put in place and many patient visits moved online, telehealth appointments skyrocketed. This program, as well as the FCC’s own Connected Care Pilot Program that I led on, has helped health care providers meet this surge in demand.
In addition, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program was created to provide discounts on home broadband service and internet-capable devices to low-income families. Consumer enrollment began May 12, and to date more than 1 million households in all 50 states have signed up. Most recently, the FCC adopted rules for the Emergency Connectivity Fund that is designed to help students currently lacking connectivity get connected. The ECF is expected to launch in June to reimburse schools for expenses such as laptops, tablets, or broadband service in the coming school year. These programs, combined with other FCC initiatives such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and 5G Fund for Rural America, will put over $40 billion toward closing the digital divide.
Q: President Trump signed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act into law in March 2020. This bipartisan legislation requires the FCC to collect granular service availability data from broadband providers in order to accurately map which areas of the country have broadband access, and at what speeds, and which areas lack access. The FCC has not yet produced the maps, despite repeated calls from congressional leaders to swiftly complete its mapping process. Why the delay? When do you anticipate the FCC will be able to fully comply with this law?
A: The FCC’s broadband maps are outdated and unreliable. Thankfully, Congress appropriated $98 million last year to create new and improved broadband maps at the FCC. We need to finish the job this fall. Not only are these maps needed to determine parts of the country that still lack internet service, but it is also a necessary step in order to unlock billions more in FCC funding that will go toward expanding broadband access. Speed matters, which is why I have called on the FCC to produce targeted maps by this fall without the bells and whistles that some groups may want. These targeted maps should focus narrowly on the data we need to move forward with RDOF Phase II and the 5G Fund. We can then add to the maps over time.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of clarity from the acting FCC Chair Rosenworcel on when Congress can expect these maps to be delivered. In March, Senator Cantwell announced a four-month timeline for completing the maps based on a conversation she had with the acting chair. However, there are no signs from the FCC that this deadline will be met. Earlier this year, FCC staff warned that the maps may not be ready until 2022. That is far longer than the original “three to six months” that was predicted by the acting FCC chair when she testified before the Senate last year. We cannot allow this timeline to slip.
Q: As the number of smartphones and other devices that connect to the internet grows, the spectrum used for wireless communication is becoming congested. Networks cannot always keep up, and during periods of high demand users may experience slow speeds, delays, and lost connections. The effects can range from annoyances like a streaming movie freezing to life-threatening transmission delays between first responders in an emergency. What is the FCC doing to make additional spectrum available? What more can Congress do to ensure there is enough spectrum available to fuel current and future demand by consumers?
A: America is home to the world’s best 5G platform, but we have a lot of work to do before anyone raises a “Mission Accomplished” banner. All told, over the last four years, the FCC opened up more than six gigahertz of spectrum for licensed 5G services in addition to thousands of megahertz of unlicensed spectrum.
But now is not the time to rest on our laurels. That is why I’ve proposed a 5G Forward agenda – focusing on spectrum, infrastructure, and jobs – that would keep the FCC on schedule with the aggressive pace we set over the last four years. The first big test is an auction of prime mid-band spectrum scheduled for October 2021, and we seem to be on track (knock on wood). My 5G Forward agenda includes a spectrum calendar that identifies several additional spectrum bands that the FCC should move forward on in 2021, 2022, and beyond.
Congress plays an important role here in helping keep the spectrum pipeline full by identifying bands that can be auctioned in the years ahead. Congressional action is particularly important in spectrum bands that are currently underutilized by federal users, as it takes years to complete the process of making this spectrum available for consumers in the marketplace.
Q: The concept of “net neutrality” and whether the FCC should regulate internet service providers with the same outdated and heavy-handed tools it uses to regulate telephone providers is a long-standing and divisive telecom issue. Do you anticipate the FCC wading back into this issue this year? Would you support Congress passing legislation to clarify the FCC’s role and tools? If so, what should be included in such legislation?
A: When it comes to the FCC reversing course and returning to the Obama-era approach to internet regulation, a skeptic would say that it is all over but the yelling and the fundraising – that it is all over. We will see.
The FCC made the right decision in 2017 when we overturned the Obama-era net neutrality rules. Obviously, the doomsday claims that were made about our decision marking “the end of the internet as we know it” were all proven false. Not only does the internet still work, it actually works better. Since overturning the Obama-era regulations, internet speeds and investment are up, prices are down, competition has increased, and the resiliency of our networks is unmatched throughout the world.
Rather than relitigating these same old arguments at the FCC, Congress has the opportunity to settle the issue once and for all by enacting legislation that provides clear rules of the road for the internet ecosystem. There is broad agreement on the core net neutrality principles, and such an approach would protect consumers while providing the industry with regulatory certainty needed to continue building and operating America’s world-leading communications networks.
Q: You have been outspoken on the issue of Section 230, the part of the U.S. code that grants online service providers broad immunity for content posted by their users, and have broadly called for reining in Big Tech. Why do you feel this way and what reforms would you support?
A: Big Tech now has more control over more speech than any institution in history. These corporate behemoths are not merely exercising market power, they are abusing dominant positions. They are not simply prevailing in the free market, they are taking advantage of a landscape that has been skewed – by the government – to favor their business models over those of their competitors.
It’s time for some fundamental reforms. As Justice Thomas recently acknowledged, Section 230 has been expanded by the courts well beyond its original intent. The FCC should act on the Trump-era petition on Section 230 that remains pending before the agency and clarify the scope of Section 230 by removing the expansive gloss added by the courts. That will promote more speech and less censorship. But Section 230 reform is just the start. We need to hold Big Tech accountable, and there are important conversations taking place at the federal and state level that would address Big Tech’s discriminatory conduct.
Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr
Brendan Carr is the senior Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, and he served previously as the agency’s general counsel. Carr was nominated to the FCC by President Trump and confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate in 2019.
Described by Axios as “the FCC’s 5G crusader,” Carr has led the FCC’s work to modernize its infrastructure rules and accelerate the building of high-speed networks. His reforms cut billions of dollars in red tape, enabled the private sector to construct high-speed networks in communities across the country, and extended America’s global leadership in 5G.
Commissioner Carr is also focused on expanding America’s skilled workforce – the tower climbers and construction crews needed to build next-gen networks. His jobs initiative promotes community colleges and apprenticeships as a pipeline for good-paying 5G jobs. He leads a groundbreaking telehealth initiative at the FCC, the Connected Care Pilot Program, that supports the delivery of high-quality care to low-income Americans and veterans over their smartphones, tablets, and other connected devices.
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