Jan 23, 2017

House GOP eyes internet buildout, driverless cars and net neutrality in 2017

Robin Groulx / Axios

Oregon Republican Greg Walden just got a promotion: he'll spend at least the next two years chairing the House's powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. That means he's the point man on everything from Obamacare to the EPA. It also makes him one of the most important legislators for both Silicon Valley and telecom.

Here's what he told Axios during a sit down recently about the tech issues already on his radar for 2017.

A net neutrality compromise is still on the table: Broadband providers hate the Federal Communications Commission's regulations on the issue, and conservatives think it's government overreach. Walden says a compromise bill he supported in 2015 is "absolutely" still on the table if lawmakers are going to address the issue. He also said his committee "might" look at the commission's decision to slap down free wireless data offers it said could violate the rules.

  • The reality: It's unknown whether a compromise that kept some aspects of the rules in place would be embraced by conservatives — including Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who replaced Walden as chair of the committee's tech subcommittee. And Walden said he'll be watching what the FCC does once Republicans take over, leaving the timing of any action in flux.

Driverless cars top his emerging tech wish list: "We'll look at issues involving driverless cars, driverless vehicles," he promised. "Some of that will require spectrum, some of that, there'll be all kinds of safety issues and things that have to be addressed."

  • Who should care: Uber, Google and the countless other companies in the driverless space could use Walden as an ally. Also, millions of American truck drivers. Walden said that though you will have employment changes because of technological shifts, "you're also not going to deny the innovation in technology either."

He wants to get tech into Trump's infrastructure blitz: He says he'd like Donald Trump's infrastructure package to include provisions requiring federally-funded highway projects to lay conduit for broadband and easing the permit process for internet infrastructure.

  • Real talk: A committee staffer said that the panel had to have conversations with the Trump administration and congressional leadership before decisions were made about an infrastructure platform. The Trump team has also yet to articulate a tech policy platform. His campaign's infrastructure agenda never mentions broadband or internet access.

Walden's got federal agencies in his sights: Expect the committee to try quickly to reauthorize the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. That'll give Republicans the chance to weigh in on how both do business.

  • Who should care: It's wonky, but both agencies have a say in major questions about privacy and broadband access — so operational changes there could trickle down to tech and telecom companies.

Watch for action on health tech: "You'll have things like how does healthcare technology in the digital age move forward," Walden said. "You know there's so much that can be done now, individually, on your own diagnosis and such."

  • The bigger picture: The committee held a hearing on mobile health apps last year that almost featured former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been active on the issue.
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