Telcom/Tech Policy Outlook – Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Change

Assessing the outlook for tech and telecom policy in the 115th Congress is a bit like predicting the weather.  In both cases, forecasting the future requires analysis of current conditions and experience to evaluate probable outcomes.  Predicting the future of tech and telecom policy this year may be even more challenging than coming up with an accurate weather forecast because the Presidential campaign was short on details and it is hard to tell how much of a push this White House will make on legislation.

Based on the recent Congressional hearings and announcements consensus is beginning to form on the  telecom/tech policies of the 115th Congress. Four key issue areas are emerging:  IoT, Cyber, Broadband and Spectrum.

IoT– With an expected 20 billion devices to be deployed in the next decade, Internet of Things will continue to be a hot topic for policymakers.  Congress has dabbled in this area – passing non-binding Sense of the Congress resolutions in support of IoT and creating an official IoT Caucus in the House and Senate, but the activity has been mostly educational.  That could change this Congress.  The exploitation of unprotected IoT devices for DDOS attacks of unprecedented strength has led some to refer to IoT as the “Internet of Threats”.  Given the current political atmosphere it is unlikely that IoT will be regulated heavily, still legislation promoting IoT innovation and better security will be tempered with proposals to ensure consumer privacy protection.

  • Companies developing products and services incorporating IoT technology should be forewarned of potential legislative/regulatory requirements.
  • Tech companies should engage with policy makers to ensure any proposals are well-reasoned and workable.

Cybersecurity –The importance of protecting critical infrastructure and consumer data has taken on new urgency with a number of incidents of state-sponsored cyber-attacks impacting US companies and private citizens over the last year.  The calls for a more robust US response to address both national security as well as corporate and consumer impacts.   Industry experts say the focus must shift from how to respond IF an attack occurs to PLANNING for the inevitable attack.  A recurring question is:  what more should the US Government and Congress be doing to protect against cyber intrusions?    Is there a role for standards setting, development of best practices, information sharing – or something more?  Congress is considering how to handle encrypted data which also falls into the bucket of cyber security related issues

  • Congress needs the input of cybersecurity experts to better understand the threats and to develop potential legislative solutions.
  • Companies that do not have plans for managing cyber attacks and data breaches could face unwanted Congressional scrutiny .

Broadband – Congressional interest in bringing broadband to rural, forgotten areas is widespread and bipartisan.   Whether the issue is addressed through individual bills, is addressed collaboratively with the FCC,  or is part of a larger legislative package, such as the Infrastructure bill, finding solutions to deploy broadband will be front and center.   It is conceivable a broadband package could include federal funds for network build, streamlining permitting and siting requirements, and even changes to the universal service fund.  Already a group of prominent Senate Democrats has put forward an infrastructure blueprint that includes $20 billion for rural broadband and a bipartisan group of 48 Senators have called for broadband to be part of any Administration infrastructure package.

  • There will be a role for smaller, more rural companies to play in expanding broadband access but it will take active involvement in the debate to ensure their needs are considered.

Spectrum – The demand for spectrum to expand mobile networks appears limitless; the availability of spectrum IS not thanks to the laws of physics.  In the 115th Congress pressure to free up spectrum currently licensed to others – including the US Government – will increase.   Will Congress take modest steps to free up spectrum, or will the new administration seek big, bold changes in the way that spectrum is allocated and licensed?  The stakes are high for companies that rely on FCC granted spectrum licenses to build and operate communications networks.

  • The pressure on incumbent license holders in every band to permit shared use and even reallocation of spectrum in some cases means companies must engage with lawmakers and their staff to better explain the risks, potential business imperatives, and consumer impact.

FCC Reform – Republican control of both the White House and the Congress means it will be easier to reverse Obama era regulations.  After years of attempts at re-imagining the FCC, Republicans in Congress will get their wish.  Proposals to eliminate specific bureaus and scale back the FCC’s jurisdiction are already on the table with more to come.  More likely and of more immediate impact will be a changed attitude toward enforcement.  Under the previous administration, the FCC assessed a record level of fines prompting much criticism from corporate interests.   The FCC may achieve some level of deregulation by simply not enforcing existing laws.

  • The potential exists to transform the FCC into a forum to mediate disputes and develop consensus on solutions rather than an enforcement agency. Companies and industries dependent on a tough cop on the beat may not be able to count on the FCC.

Like the weather, it is difficult to forecast with certainty what will happen on tech and telecom issues.  Small businesses and new players in the tech industry need to be prepared for a policy agenda that may not promote their interests.  Now more than ever – it will be important to have eyes and ears in DC to stay on top of all development and to partner with experienced government relations strategists to translate what policy changes mean to the bottom line and navigate the process.