A Big Fall Kickoff
For sports fans, this is the week we’ve all been waiting for. Football is finally back! In two days, the Super Bowl LIV champion Kansas City Chiefs will begin their title defense and kick off the NFL season when they host the Houston Texans. (Did I mention my beloved Chiefs are Super Bowl champions?) The return of the NFL also means the return of fantasy football.
In this spirit, the FCC’s September agenda looks like a well-balanced fantasy team. Just as you would assemble a fantasy roster with a quarterback, running backs, receivers, a tight end, a kicker, and a defense, we’re rolling out a diverse lineup featuring at least one item from each of the Commission’s seven bureaus.
Consistent with the popular strategy of picking running backs in the early rounds, our September agenda leads off with a pair of workhorse spectrum items from our Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.
Today, 750 megahertz of spectrum in the 2.9–3.65 GHz band is allocated for high-powered defense radar systems. But the average measured occupancy (or use) of the 3450–3550 MHz segment of this band is less than 1% at sites without a significant military presence, according to a study recently completed by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. In the MOBILE NOW Act, Congress required that the 3100–3550 MHz band be studied for the feasibility of commercial use. In 2018, NTIA identified the 3.45–3.55 GHz band for potential repurposing to spur commercial wireless innovation. And most recently, the White House and the Department of Defense announced last month that this 100 megahertz of contiguous mid-band spectrum should be made available for 5G as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, the FCC was already working on ways to maximize use of this spectrum, so we are able to move quickly to do our part to repurpose this mid-band spectrum for commercial 5G. Building on a rulemaking launched in 2019, I have circulated to my fellow commissioners a Report and Order to remove the secondary, non-federal allocations from the 3.3–3.55 GHz band. This is a critical first step toward making the 3.45–3.55 GHz band available for innovative commercial operations while accommodating limited remaining operations by federal incumbents — one we’ll vote on at our next meeting on September 30. We will also vote on seeking comment on further changes to the band to enable future commercial use, such as reallocating the 3.45–3.55 GHz band on a co-primary basis for non-federal fixed and mobile (except aeronautical mobile) services, rules for limited future federal incumbent use of the band, and licensing, operating, and technical rules for commercial operations. Along with the upcoming December C-band auction of 280 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for 5G and the recently completed auction of 70 megahertz of licensed spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, this new proposal would put the Commission on track to have a 530-megahertz swath (from 3.45 to 3.98 GHz) of mid-band spectrum available for 5G. That’s 5G FAST, to coin a phrase.
But we’re not stopping there in our work to open up access to mid-band airwaves. A second spectrum item on our September agenda aims to make better use of the 4.9 GHz band. Way back in 2002, the FCC designated 50 megahertz of contiguous spectrum in that band for public safety use. Unfortunately, only about 3.5% of potential licensees — less than 1 out of 25 — have actually taken advantage of this spectrum. A barrier to wireless deployment in this band is the unusual licensing framework. Public safety licensees are permitted to use their spectrum only for public safety purposes, with no exclusivity, and share the band by ad-hoc coordination to avoid interference. In three weeks, the Commission will vote on a Report and Order that would give states the opportunity to lease 4.9 GHz band spectrum to commercial entities, electric utilities, and others. This market-driven path will protect public safety incumbent operations while providing states the flexibility to use the spectrum to boost wireless broadband, improve critical infrastructure monitoring, or facilitate new public safety use cases that meet the unique challenges and geographies of each state. In an accompanying Further Notice, we are also proposing a new state-based licensing regime for public safety operations in the 4.9 GHz band.
A team’s overall strength is of course important in fantasy football, and the same goes for government, too. One area where the FCC benefits greatly from the help of our federal partners is our review of applications or petitions by foreign companies trying to enter the U.S. telecommunications market or obtain licenses or authorizations through assignments or transfers of control. The Commission has a lot of expertise in areas like engineering and economics, but we often consult with others when it comes to questions about national security, law enforcement, trade, and foreign affairs. For example, information provided by other agencies about security threats posed by China Mobile played an important role in our decision to reject its application to provide international telecommunications services between the United States and foreign destinations. For over 20 years, we’ve referred certain foreign investment applications to a set of Executive Branch agencies — known informally as Team Telecom — for their expert review. On April 4, 2020, the President issued an Executive Order formally establishing the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector. The “primary objective” of the Committee, according to the Executive Order, is “to assist the FCC in its public interest review of national security and law enforcement concerns that may be raised by foreign participation in the United States telecommunications services sector.” The Executive Order established review processes for the Committee for new license applications referred to it by the FCC as well as existing licenses (under certain circumstances). The order also authorized the Committee to make recommendations to the FCC to mitigate risks to national security or law enforcement interests identified through its reviews. Following up on this Executive Order, our International Bureau has prepared a Report and Order to streamline and improve the timeliness and transparency of this inter-agency review process. The new rules will enhance national security while providing greater regulatory certainty for applicants and facilitating foreign investment where appropriate.
Many fantasy leagues have that one owner who drives everyone else up the wall with ridiculous trade offers. In the telecom world, that constant nuisance is robocalls. A common weapon used by illegal robocallers is caller ID spoofing, which masks calls with fake, familiar-looking numbers that trick us into thinking a call is trustworthy. To thwart this illegal caller ID spoofing, the FCC has been advancing implementation of the STIR/SHAKEN caller ID authentication framework. STIR/SHAKEN technology, which operates solely on Internet Protocol (IP) networks, allows voice service providers to verify that the caller ID information transmitted with a particular call matches the caller’s number. This past March, the Commission adopted rules requiring voice service providers to implement this call authentication technology in the IP portions of their phone networks by June 30, 2021, consistent with the newly enacted TRACED Act. Our Wireline Competition Bureau has crafted a new Order, which we will consider at our September meeting, to take the next steps toward STIR/SHAKEN implementation. It would establish rules governing intermediate providers and caller ID authentication in non-IP networks. Specifically, it would require voice service providers to either upgrade their non-IP networks to IP and implement STIR/SHAKEN, or work to develop a non-IP authentication solution. It would also enact pro-consumer provisions of the TRACED Act, like the prohibition of line-item charges for caller ID authentication.
Most fantasy players pay a nominal entry fee in hopes that they might take home some prize money at the end of the year. Imagine winning your league, but the Commissioner couldn’t pay out in full because some of the entry fees had been spent elsewhere. It would be a scandal that would bring down the league! Well, a much worse scandal is playing out across the country — and the stakes are very real. Each year, the Commission provides a report to Congress on states’ collection and use of 911 fees that identifies which states have improperly diverted those fees. And each year, a number of states have been identified as diverters, with a few states being repeat offenders. Between 2012 and 2018, states diverted over $1.275 billion in fees collected for 911 services to non-911 purposes. This fee diversion threatens public safety by siphoning away the funds needed to maintain and upgrade 911 systems. But thanks to the leadership of FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, this problem has been getting the tough scrutiny it deserves. Our Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau has prepared a Notice of Inquiry for our September meeting seeking comment on the effects of 911 fee diversion and exploring additional steps the Commission or others could take to discourage states from diverting 911 fees.
Every fantasy league has its own set of rules. Those rules are periodically tweaked and updated to reflect changes in the game, to scrap rules that no longer make sense (like points scored by a D/ST counting against an opposing D/ST), and to improve the experience for league members. We’re basically doing the same thing at the FCC with our Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative. The FCC’s Media Bureau has led this effort, and its two latest offerings are on our September agenda.
The first seeks to make sure consumers are accurately informed rather than confused when there are disputes between video programmers and cable operators. Our rules currently require cable providers to notify consumers 30 days before a channel is dropped from a channel lineup when the channel change is within their control. However, in today’s video marketplace, retransmission consent and program carriage negotiations are often concluded within days — if not hours — of the expiration of existing agreements. And in those cases, it is frequently unclear, 30 days prior to a contract’s expiration, whether a new agreement will be reached, there will be a short-term extension, or programming will be dropped. We don’t want consumers to be inundated by premature and inaccurate notices. If consumers are bombarded by notices about potential channel lineup changes that never come to fruition, many will ignore notices altogether and thus miss out on notices about actual channel lineup changes. Others might go through the trouble of dropping their existing provider and subscribing to another service, only for these channel changes never to come to pass. Therefore, to make consumer notices more meaningful and accurate, and to make our rules clearer, the Commission will vote on an Order to change the notice deadline from 30 days in advance to “as soon as possible” in cases in which carriage negotiations fail during the last 30 days of a contract.
Our second Media Bureau item is an Order to eliminate our rule requiring that cable operators maintain in their online public inspection file information regarding their attributable interests in video programming services and their carriage of vertically programming on systems in which they have an attributable interest. This recordkeeping rule was originally adopted to help the Commission enforce channel occupancy limits. But those limits have long since been struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, negating any need for this requirement. Moreover, this information can be obtained from sources other than the public inspection files maintained by cable operators, making this reporting requirement unnecessary.
Fantasy leagues are often won because a late pick has a big impact (to wit: my sincere gratitude to Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake, then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Breshad Perriman, and Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee for the late-season heroics that carried one of my teams to a championship this past season). One of the final items on our September agenda could make a meaningful difference in the daily lives of many Americans with hearing loss. Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service, or IP CTS, allows people who can speak but have difficulty hearing over the telephone to both read captions and use their residual hearing to understand a phone conversation. Use of IP CTS is paid for entirely through the FCC’s TRS Fund, and it has grown substantially in recent years. Today, this service represents almost 80% of the total minutes compensated out of the TRS Fund — at a cost of nearly one billion dollars a year. Our Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau has drafted an Order to bring expenditures for this service more in line with costs, preserving the viability of IP CTS for those people with hearing loss who need it. Specifically, it would reduce the provider compensation rate to $1.42 per minute in 2020–21 and $1.30 per minute (the current cost-based rate) in 2021–22. If enacted, this would save the TRS Fund approximately $200 million over the next two years. This Order would also deny Sprint Corporation’s petition for reconsideration of the interim compensation rates set in 2018 (rates that themselves have already saved taxpayers over $350 million). In addition, in the companion Further Notice for Proposed Rulemaking, the Commission for the first time would propose to establish objective standards for assessing and testing the quality of IP CTS service.
Of course, every good fantasy league benefits from a strong Commissioner who enforces the rules and keeps people honest. The Commission’s Enforcement Bureau handles that task for much of the telecommunications sector. The Bureau will be presenting an item at our September meeting, which I cannot discuss at this time per longstanding practice.
I’m not sure how my fantasy football teams will shape up this year. But I can say for certain that the Commission is stacked with a stellar roster of Bureaus. My thanks to the Consumer and Governmental Affairs, Enforcement, International, Media, Public Safety and Homeland Security, Wireline Competition, and Wireless Telecommunications Bureaus for taking the lead on our September meeting items as well as the Office of Economics and Analytics, Office of Engineering and Technology, and the Office of General Counsel for their assistance in making sure that these items were ready for gameday. This September, each of them has stepped up to make sure we start the fall with victories for U.S. consumers and innovators.