Unsurprisingly, today’s House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hearing on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) focused largely on the commission’s efforts to improve broadband affordability and access, as well as its work to close the digital divide and homework gap.

Testifying before the subcommittee were FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioners Brendan Carr, Geoffrey Starks, and Nathan Simington. The FCC is currently short one commissioner as the confirmation of Gigi Sohn, President Biden’s nominee, has remained in a holding pattern due to Senate deadlock.

Starks said it quite bluntly during the hearing, “our long-standing digital divide had morphed into a monstrous COVID-19 divide.” Adding that, “like so many other aspects of the pandemic, the lack of access to and adoption of home broadband has amplified and reinforced existing inequities in our society.”

Improving Broadband and Device Affordability

With Congressional funding, the FCC was able to launch a handful of new programs to help low-income Americans afford both broadband services and necessary devices to participate in distance learning, work, and medicine.

“Last year we began by putting in place the Emergency Broadband Benefit,” Rosenworcel explained. “It provided eligible households monthly discounts to help pay for internet service and a one-time discount for a computer or tablet. Then, earlier this year, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act gave the agency the authority to extend this effort and renamed it the Affordable Connectivity Program.”

“Working on a tight timeframe, the agency set up this $14.2 billion effort to extend the monthly discount available for a longer time and put in place new statutory criteria to reach more households,” Rosenworcel continued. “As a result, we now have more than 11 million households nationwide participating in the program.”

Ensuring Accurate Broadband Maps

One of the FCC’s primary jobs is ensuring that Federal funding for broadband deployment is actually going to and connecting unserved and underserved areas. Key to ensuring funding is being used appropriately is making sure the commission has access to accurate, up-to-date broadband maps. However, this has been a pain point for the commission for years.

During the hearing, the commissioners delved into what the FCC is doing to ensure broadband map accuracy moving forward.

The FCC is currently in the process of completing updated broadband maps. During the hearing, Carr said, “Getting those maps done is going to be key to ensuring that we properly target the billions of dollars in Federal funds that are now available for broadband.”

Carr raised serious concerns about whether there are “appropriate guardrails” in place when it comes to spending Federal funding. One of the areas of concern he has is around broadband mapping.

“The Treasury rules allow these billions of dollars to be spent based on bad data. It does this by authorizing recipients to determine whether an area lacks access to high-speed Internet service by relying on informal interviews and reports – however inaccurate those may be – rather than the broadband maps that the Federal government has been funding and standing up,” Carr said.

He added, “Thankfully, it is not too late to correct course.” Explaining that Treasury rules should tie spending to broadband maps approved by the FCC.

Improve Network and Device Security

During the hearing, Carr praised the FCC work thus far to ensure network and national security but stressed there is much work to be done – especially when it comes to threats posed by companies based in China. Carr identified four steps the FCC needs to take

“One, the FCC needs to keep our Covered List up to date – and the FCC took some targeted actions along these lines just last week,” Carr said. “Two, the FCC must act quickly to bring our proceeding on the Secure Equipment Act to a vote. Three, the FCC should build on our actions in the Section 214 context by opening a new proceeding to examine whether we should prohibit regulated carriers from directly interconnecting with entities that have been deemed a national security risk, even if those entities are operating in a manner that does not require a Section 214 authorization … And four, the FCC should publish a list of every entity with an FCC license or authorization that is owned or controlled by Communist China.”

Starks raised concerns over Chinese companies marketing even as the nation has barred Chinese carriers from offering data center and private line services in the country. He said this allows the companies access to U.S. communications and the personal information of American citizens.

“In cooperation with the relevant Executive Branch agencies, the Commission should commence an inquiry to identify all U.S.-based data centers owned and/or operated by companies subject to the laws or jurisdiction of adversary states; identify, on a confidential basis, the services provided by these data centers and their customers; ascertain whether the data centers present a risk of interception, tampering, or blocking of U.S. communications and information; and identify any legal authority of the FCC or another regulatory body to protect U.S. communications stored within or that otherwise transit these data centers,” Starks said.

For his part, Simington addressed device security as a top concern. He acknowledged that “the FCC is not a cybersecurity agency,” but explained, “our mission includes protecting the availability of wireless spectrum, a scarce and fragile resource, for the use of the government and the public.”

He added, “traditionally we have fulfilled this role by requiring that wireless transmitters pass a battery of FCC tests and operate within narrowly confined parameters.”

However, Simington said that even if every transmitter and receiver are designed to meet high standards, these devices are no longer static circuits that behaved consistently over their lifespan. Rather, as static devices are retired, they are replaced with software-controlled devices, which are often running multiple operating systems from different providers.

“These systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks, and those attacks can turn a device that performed perfectly well on an FCC workbench into a signal jammer,” he said. “Addressing wireless security for the new wireless era will protect Americans against domestic and foreign threats.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.