You can add the Federal Communications Commission to the list of government shutdown casualties: The agency will shutter most of its operations on Thursday. Its outage-reporting system will remain online, so you can still let the FCC know if your local 911 service goes down. But if you run into billing or privacy issues with your mobile phone provider, you won’t be able to file a complaint online or by phone, and there will be no one to read your snail-mail letters.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is business as usual for the FCC. The agency has washed its hands of much of its oversight over broadband and text-message service providers since Republicans gained control of the agency in 2017, and critics argue that recent changes allow the agency to ignore consumer complaints, even when the government is operating. But as the agency responsible for managing use of the nation’s airwaves, the FCC plays an important role in internet and media. For example, it must decide the fate of the planned merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, approve or reject Nexstar Media Group’s proposed acquisition of fellow TV-station-owner Tribune Media Company, and continue allocating parts of the wireless spectrum for use in 5G wireless networks.
The FCC will continue to auction off rights to use the wireless spectrum during the shutdown because those auctions are funded by the auctions themselves. That’s good news for carriers eager to license new chunks of spectrum for 5G. But, depending on how long the shutdown lasts, mergers could be significantly delayed.
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A few extra days off won’t meaningfully delay the agency’s major decisions, says former FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn. But if the shutdown stretches into weeks, it will likely disrupt much of the agency’s work. FCC staff won’t be allowed to read email or take meetings unless they’re related to continuing activities like spectrum auctions, so staff will have a lot of catching up to do when they return to work. The FCC had remained open while other agencies shut down because of “available funds,” the FCC said on December 21.
It’s not clear what the shutdown will mean for the agency’s investigation into telecom company CenturyLink’s outage that knocked out 911 coverage in many parts of the country last month.
The FCC’s website will remain online during the shutdown, but there will be no updates, and some features, such a tool that lets people access data about informal complaints filed with the agency, won’t be available.