San José Mayor Quits FCC Broadband Group Due to ‘Predetermined, Industry-Favoring Outcome’

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo Tony Avelar/Invision/AP

Liccardo’s resignation reflected critic’s frustration over the committee focus on industry concerns with state and local government.

WASHINGTON — San José Mayor Sam Liccardo quit a Federal Communications Commission panel tasked with guiding the commission’s national broadband efforts on Thursday, the latest indication of ongoing frustration of state and local representatives on the committee, who say they have been drowned out by industry interests.  

The FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee has focused its efforts on ways to streamline state and local government regulations, fees and deliberation while disregarding what industry responsibilities may be in closing the “digital divide,” according to some critics and local representatives on the committee.

In his resignation letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Liccardo stated, “after nine months of deliberation, negotiation, and discussion, we’ve made no progress toward a single proposal that will actually further the goal of equitable broadband deployment.” The reference to equitable broadband deployment seemed to be a direct jab at Pai’s statement at the meeting of the committee Monday, stating that their “work is critical to my top policy priority as FCC Chairman—closing the digital divide.”

During a panel session on Wednesday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual winter meeting that focused on broadband deployment, Liccardo told his fellow mayors that despite Pai’s stated commitment to closing the digital divide, “[u]nfortunately, we are not seeing that in action—either from the FCC or this Congress.”

Liccardo, a Democrat, and other BDAC members told Route Fifty that they did not blame individual members of the committee, with more than one complimenting the work of BDAC’s chair, Elizabeth Bowles, president and board chair at Aristotle, Inc., a Little Rock, Arkansas-based wireless internet service provider. Rather, it was the context they were working in.

“The challenge we have here is from the frame of the FCC and from the industry . . . local government is the problem,” Liccardo told his fellow mayors on Wednesday. “That high fees, red tape and restrictive permitting is the reason why we do not have equitable deployment of broadband and why we have this digital divide—and of course cities are all awful with technology . . . and you can imagine the irony for me, in the city of San José in the heart of Silicon Valley, hearing that my city is hostile to technology.”

“The truth is that, I have heard repeatedly that [mayors] have offered zero fees to the industry to invite them into their jurisdictions to serve their residents and they still do not get the investment.”

Liccardo’s office cited “the pervasive and overwhelming influence of big telecom and industry interests over the body, and the predetermined, industry-favoring outcome” in a statement announcing his resignation. The San José mayor was initially the only municipal government representative on the BDAC; after complaints from national organizations representing local governments, as well as congressional representatives and another FCC committee, two more were added.

Even with those additions, there are few state and local stakeholders on the committee. More than 75 percent of the BDAC’s 30 seats filled by industry representatives.

Liccardo and his chief innovation officer, Shireen Santosham, painted a picture of intense work by a handful of local representatives on the committee being overwhelmed by strong representation from industry.

As Liccardo’s representative on two working groups for the BDAC, Santosham attended more than 80 meetings over the course of the past year, spending four to six hours a week on conference calls in addition to spending additional time on draft language sent to her to review.

Santosham added, that this was “on top of my day job, being the lead tech adviser for the largest city in Silicon Valley.”

After nine months of debate, things seemed to come to a head over the December holidays. According to Santosham, a representative from AT&T distributed a heavily rewritten draft of the committee’s municipal model code, making 800 changes.

“They gave us one week to give comments back,” Santosham said.

Liccardo told Route Fifty that the resulting document effectively mirrored legislation that industry officials have been promoting across the country. “They pulled the rug out,” Liccardo told Route Fifty.

When Route Fifty asked about the mayor’s comments, a spokesperson for AT&T responded with this statement: “The FCC’s BDAC works by consensus, all participants can contribute to the process and nothing gets adopted without broad support.”

While Liccardo resigned from the BDAC, he urged his fellow mayors to reach out to members of Congress to educate them on the local perspective on telecommunications issues. He warned them that there were, by his count, 16 bills before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that would “essentially eviscerate local control in ways that I believe will undermine our collective efforts to expand broadband deployment to low income communities.”

In a statement released by the FCC following Liccardo’s resignation, Pai said:

“The Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee and its working groups have brought together 101 participants from a range of perspectives to recommend strategies to promote better, faster, and cheaper broadband. Bridging the digital divide continues to be my top priority, and I look forward to continuing to work with the BDAC and many others to remove regulatory barriers to broadband deployment and to extend digital opportunity to all Americans.”

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic appointee, also released a statement, saying: “It is deeply disappointing to me that it has reached the point that San José Mayor Sam Liccardo felt compelled to resign. Disregarding an elected official representing one of the largest U.S. cities in the nation is unconscionable.”