House Passes Bill Strengthening Powers of FCC CIO

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, center, sits next to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, left, and Commissioner Michael O'Rielly.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, center, sits next to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, left, and Commissioner Michael O'Rielly. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The bill would reauthorize the Federal Communications Commision, encourage broadband development and make some changes to the commission’s oversight.

A landmark bill that would reauthorize the Federal Communications Commission for the first time in nearly three decades passed the House in a rare display of bipartisan support.

The Repack Airwaves Yielding Better Access for Users of Modern Services Act, or RAY BAUMS Act, aims to modernize the FCC and improve communications infrastructure and internet access. The bill, a version of which passed the Senate last Congress, was approved Tuesday by voice vote.

“The RAY BAUM’S Act will make the FCC more transparent, efficient, and modern while strengthening the nation’s critical telecommunications services and spurring the deployment of 5G,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., in a joint statement. “With this legislation, we’re also upholding our commitment to broadcasters across the country by authorizing reimbursement for those broadcasters who were displaced after the successful incentive auctions.”

Named after deceased House Energy and Commerce Committee Staff Director Ray Baum, the legislation also includes a slew of tech-focused amendments that would boost the power of the FCC’s top technology office, streamline spectrum auctions and kickstart the expansion of 5G broadband networks.

Among the amendments tucked into the larger bill is the FCC CIO Parity Act, which would ensure the commission’s chief information officer plays a “significant role” in planning, budgeting and hiring processes related to IT at the agency. These powers would be similar to what the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act grants to CIOs at CFO Act agencies.

"The FCC is charged with regulating close to a sixth of our economy, but their information technology systems are severely out of date, leaving sensitive industry material vulnerable to increasingly dangerous cyber attacks,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., told Nextgov. “The inclusion of this provision will empower the FCC CIO and give the CIO the authority necessary to modernize and take the necessary steps to protect sensitive data.”

Udall introduced the bill in December alongside Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. The legislation would also give the FCC CIO the power to specify and approve how the agency spends funds designated for IT.

“As agencies plan for budgets, it only makes sense for the expertise of the CIO to be included in these critical operational decisions,” a spokesman for Moran, told Nextgov.

Also included in the legislation are key aspects of the MOBILE NOW Act, a Senate-approved bill that would streamline the process for building next-gen 5G wireless networks and open up more spectrum for the private-sector development.

RAY BAUM’S Act also includes a measure that would make the FCC inspector general independent of the commission’s chairman, which a number of lawmakers cheered during Tuesday’s floor debate. The provision would make it impossible for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to fire the inspector general as the office investigates possible ties between Pai and Sinclair Broadcasting, a media giant that stands to benefit from recent policy changes.