What is the US Republican Party’s view on spectrum policy?
Aug 07, 2020 by Toby Youell

Blog

FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly has long championed conservative causes in US spectrum policy. His dogged advocacy for reform of the CBRS framework for the 3550—3700 MHz band, for example, led to significant changes that have made it easier for the big mobile operators to gain priority access to the band. 

A supporter of an “America First” approach, he praised President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the World Health Organisation in the face of COVID-19, drawing parallels with his own criticism of the International Telecommunication Union. 

So it was something of a surprise when the Trump Administration informed the Senate on Tuesday night, without explanation, that it was withdrawing his nomination to serve another five-year term at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

His nomination was already somewhat troubled: US Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, was withholding support until O’Rielly pledged to change his mind on allowing Ligado to use the L-band for mobile services. But given that a major Trump ally, Attorney General Bill Barr, supported O’Rielly’s decision on that issue, it seems unlikely that this motivated the White House to withdraw his nomination. 

The position that would prove fatal for O’Rielly’s career at the FCC is thought to relate to a recent petition, ordered by President Trump, that asks the FCC to rule that corporations are not protected from lawsuits when they censor their users’ speech. This is intended to address perceived bias against conservatives on Twitter and Facebook. Commissioner Carr, another Republican at the FCC, has supported the petition and has been rewarded with an appearance in the President’s Twitter feed.

O’Rielly recently gave a speech to the Media Institute where he defended the right of corporations to editorialize under the First Amendment. O’Rielly said the comments were not related to the petition, but the White House may believe that they were.

The withdrawal of O’Rielly’s nomination was criticised by many in communications policy circles, even by other conservatives. 

This is not the first time a pro-business conservative telecoms policy has been reversed by the Republican Party. The FCC was thought to be sympathetic to a market transaction that would make a part of the 3.7—4.2 GHz band available for mobile.

Despite its apparent conservative credentials, and support from O’Rielly, the policy was overturned when a Republican Senator from Louisiana, John N Kennedy, persuaded the President to call FCC chair Ajit Pai and see if it would be possible to hold a public auction of the band in order to raise money for the federal government. 

O’Rielly himself has been silent on his effective sacking. But if it is true that his promising career as a conservative policymaker was cut short by a defence of the First Amendment, one might wonder if any consistent approach to spectrum should be expected from the US Republican Party. Is it an agent of ideas, or has it become an agent of Trump?•