Wheeler Lays Into FCC IT System at Hill Hearing

For the second time in three days, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and senior Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai testified before a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, this time in the Senate. The testimony varied a bit, and the hearing focused more on the budget that the March 25 House hearing, which strayed, or was steered, into criticism of the proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, and a policy debate over the value of joint sales agreements.

But the takeaway from Wheeler was that he is going to get things done, and will need the budget the FCC has asked for--about a $36 million, or 10% increase--to get things done.

The Senate hearing did include a reprise from the House of the issue of positive train control, as well as rural broadband and some enlightenment from chairman Wheeler on a timetable for outlining the incentive auction framework.

But Wheeler was pressed much more consistently on what he needed the money for and what the consequences would be if he didn't get it. That included why he did not ask for fewer new FTE's (full-time employees) so he could put more money into updating an FCC IT system Wheeler said was unacceptable and insecure.

Wheeler said he would like to split the baby, but needed money for both IT upgrades and extra people to, among other things, better police a Universal Service Reform system he said needed major overhaul and oversight. He minced no words about the state of the USF Lifeline subsidy.

"It has been abused," he told the senators. "I said from day one I want heads on pikes. I want to find out who the miscreants are and deal with them."

Wheeler had plenty of reasons for investing $13.5 million to upgrade the IT system. His frustration was palpable.

"We must, simply cannot go on this way," he said.

He suggested it was an embarrassment for the agency that oversees networks to have an inefficient and insecure IT infrastructure, 40% of which is more than 10 years old and not even supported by vendors. He called it a hodgepodge of incompatible and inefficient equipment, a situation that a business in the private sector would never tolerate--he has run, bought and sold such businesses.

One example Wheeler gave (sorry, Microsoft) was that the FCC was still using the Windows XP in many of its computers.

"It is well known that it is the access point of hackers worldwide," he said. "But we don't have the money to get out of it...We can't be sitting here, one, without capabilities and, two, as exposed as we are."

But he said reforming USF and dealing with waste, fraud and abuse, too, was crucial and would require bodies. He did not add that it could save money in the long run by reducing waste, but has made that point before. In any event the FCC's budget is paid for through fees and auctions, not tax money.

"Both of these issues undermine the basic foundation of both activities," he argued. "If you don't have a good IT system, it undermines your ability to get things done at the agency. And if you don't have a good enforcement system, it undermines the credibility of the program itself. I wish I could cut the baby in half."

Another example he gave of the need for more IT money is that just from his appearance at the hearing, and being in the news, the FCC would get a spike in the number of attacks on the FCC Web site. That resonated with Johanns, former Secretary of Agriculture, who said one of the most surprising things he learned in his first days was how aggressively the computer system was being attacked.

Actually the spike in attacks on the FCC web site was in evidence at the hearing itself, with commissioner Pai taking a shot. While Pai said he agreed that there was a delicate balance that had to be struck--and certainly supported robust USF enforcement--he also said he thought the FCC could spend the IT resources it has more effectively.

Then came the "quality of service" attack. "We spent a great deal of money on the FCC Web site," Pai said. "It's a web site many people find incredibly difficult to use. More often than not, people actually click through to the old Web site, which looks like it was cutting edge back in 1998. I myself do that."

He also said while he agreed in USF reform in principle, he had not seen a plan for how those new FTE's would be employed and would be happy to work with the chairman on that. Pai made the point, as he had in the House hearing, that while he was happy to answer questions about the budget, he had not been included in the process that came up with it.

Wheeler made it clear in body language, inflection and his clipped and direct statements that he was a man of action and decisiveness, saying that he had a lot to balance, but also suggesting he had a lot of decisions to make and was not going to be shy about doing so. He said he hoped he would be remembered as someone who had made decisions.

Ranking Member Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE) said that they would name the FCC's building after Wheeler if he could resolve the incentive auction and network neutrality issues. Johanns said he would like to start a dialog with Wheeler about both. Wheeler promised his office would contact Johann's by day's end.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.