Washington

Data-Driven FCC in Overdrive

New chairman faces an enormously ambitious agenda, starting with a broadband plan 7/18/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern



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It's going to be a long summer at the FCC—at least according to broadband guru Blair Levin. At the first public FCC meeting under new Chairman Julius Genachowski, Levin apologized in advance to staffers who schedule vacations for the historically dog days of August.

That's because the FCC has an ambitious schedule of broadband hearings, including at least 20 next month, as part of its charter to deliver a national broadband rollout plan. Levin is coordinating the effort. “This is going to be this year's DTV transition,” said one FCC staffer.

At his nomination hearing, Genachowski said his commission was to be a data-driven one. If so, it will have to go into overdrive to get that data collected and processed. The broadband plan is only one of a growing number of surveys, studies and data-collection efforts the FCC has to complete under both its own and externally imposed deadlines. Various sources say they have never seen the FCC's agenda so full.

“It's crazy; we're seeing this in the Obama administration writ large,” said one veteran lobbyist who asked not to be identified. “They are working around the clock to try to do a lot really soon.”

According to FCC spokesman David Fiske, the commission has made four or five new outside hires to help with the broadband plan, and expects to announce more new hires next week. The bulk of the workload, however, will be handled by bureau staffers, given that broadband increasingly cuts across traditional boundaries.

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While the broadband plan is being billed as arguably the biggest thing the FCC has ever undertaken, affecting everything from energy and education to health care and government services, it is still only the main course on an exceedingly full plate. The commission is playing catch-up on three years of annual video competition reports, while at the same time launching its quadrennial report to Congress on all of its rules. The FCC is required to look at those rules with an eye toward whether they are still necessary. Per a congressional mandate, the FCC also has to collect broadband mapping data.

The job could get bigger still. Certain bills likely to pass in both the House and Senate will require the FCC to produce an inventory of spectrum use, including who is using it and how efficiently, within 180 days. An updated Website database is also on the docket.

Former acting chairman Michael Copps, who started driving some of that data with an effort to get a better handle on minority ownership, also wants the commission to produce a report on the DTV transition while it is still fresh in everyone's mind. He told B&C he believes the FCC has the personnel to do it.

Copps also presided over collection of data on the state of content-control technologies on broadcast, cable and online, another short-term task due at the end of next month. However, Copps told B&C that would be a review of existing material rather than a next step of making recommendations, particularly given that the new commission is only now beginning to take shape. (The Senate last week held a nomination hearing on its final two commission nominees, Mignon Clyburn and Meredith Attwell Baker.)

The FCC last week announced that in addition to the new staffers, it was already looking beyond its doors for help in assembling broadband data. Among other moves, the plan is to reach out to Genachowski's alma mater, Harvard, to compile data on broadband deployment from around the world. Levin has said that the commission is not starting off with conclusions and seeking data to support them, but plans to first compile the data from which it will eventually draw these conclusions. Levin's plan is for Harvard's data collection to help inform the plan.

Coincidentally, the 2010 deadline for the plan is Feb. 17, a familiar date to DTV followers as the original 2009 hard date for the digital transition. That DTV date famously did not hold, and one veteran communications attorney pointed to other FCC delivery dates that were honored in the breach. He agrees with Levin that the commission will need to reschedule some staff vacations to get the job done, but he also pointed out that “the agency is known for not adhering to a lot of deadlines. Congress has mandated that they do an ownership study every two years, and they have never done one on time.”

But the lobbyist thinks that will change in the current commission: “I don't think that is going to happen here. Why make Congress unhappy by missing deadlines? It would be like poking a sleeping lion when you walk in the door of the cave.”

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