Open Internet controversy could imperil FCC IT modernization

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Republicans in Congress are still fuming about the Open Internet order from the Federal Communications Commission, and there is talk about exacting some measure of payback in the appropriations process.

In some respects, the fracas couldn't come at a worse time for the FCC. The agency's lease on its Washington, D.C., headquarters is up for renewal, and the FCC is looking to save money with cheaper digs. Additionally, the agency is planning on modernizing its IT infrastructure. Both these activities cost money, with the FCC seeking an additional $51 million for the move and $17 million for IT, out of a total budget request of $413 million.

While budget allocations to the FCC are offset by fees collected by the agency, Congress still gets to decide how much the agency can spend. Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), chairman of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, was critical of the Open Internet policy – better known as net neutrality – and of plans by the agency to move $25 million from its Universal Service Fund, collected to subsidize communications networks in rural areas, to underwrite agency operations.

"With the FCC's embrace of the president's plan for Internet regulation, the commission moves farther and farther away from the independence and transparency and regulatory certainty our nation deserves," Boozman said.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told the committee that the agency was paying too much to maintain old IT, with many systems over a decade old, and that IT operations housed more than 200 servers in its headquarters that could be moved to an offsite cloud-based system.

"We are missing the opportunity to use technology to reduce costs," Wheeler said, noting that a move to the cloud could save $1 million to $2 million per year, and a shift to a single architecture rather than supporting multiple IT systems means a reduction in contractor headcount. "We have 100,000 unique data sets in the agency. ... We have 207 different platforms that don't speak to each other. The maintenance of those alone is an expensive proposition."

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai does not support the administration’s proposed budget. He asked the subcommittee to separate from the general fund any money intended to pay for moving to a new headquarters and IT modernization. Additionally, Pai hopes Congress will "forbid the commission from using any appropriated funds to implement or enforce the plan the FCC recently adopted to regulate the Internet."

On the House side, the Energy and Commerce Committee has held hearings with an eye to reauthorizing the FCC – the first such legislation in 25 years. There is also proposed legislation at that committee to change the agency's rulemaking process and taking some authority away from the FCC chairman's office.

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) has introduced a measure to eliminate the Open Internet order. Another group of Republicans are planning a compromise bill that would retain some aspects of the order, while eliminating others. While Obama would certainly veto any standalone bill rolling back the Open Internet order, opponents of the policy see an opportunity to at least tweak potential enforcement of the rule, or limit costs on legal defense of the rule from industry lawsuits, in the appropriations process. 

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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