A Happy and Productive New Year
It’s one week into 2018, and thanks to the Kansas City Chiefs, my New Year’s resolution to minimize sports-related verbal outbursts is already shot. But fortunately, the FCC is poised to make good on one of my top resolutions from last year: prioritizing high-quality economic and data analysis at the agency.
The Commission’s team of economists and data analysts is among our greatest assets, driving landmark achievements like our incentive auction. In fact, just last week, our incentive auction team was named one of six finalists for the prestigious Edelman Award for excellence in data analytics. Nonetheless, over the years, the agency has failed to fully take advantage of this asset. Our economists are sprinkled across the Commission, and their input during policy deliberations has too often been ad hoc or an afterthought.
Last April, I delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute, in which I outlined my vision for elevating the role of economics in the Commission’s decision-making. Specifically, I proposed the creation of a new office for our economists and data analysts. To make sure we thought through all the issues, I established an internal working group to look at this recommendation. After nine months of study and extensive interviews with several dozen experts both inside and outside the agency, the working group issued a report that included some concrete recommendations.
Based on the insights from its report, I’ve shared with my colleagues an Order to create a new Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA). The new OEA will at long last put economic analysis at the heart of Commission decision-marking. We’ll vote on this Order at the FCC’s next public meeting, on January 30.
The new Office would consist of four different divisions. The first would be the Economic Analysis Division, which would work closely with staff across the Commission’s bureaus and offices on rulemakings, adjudications, transaction reviews and related activities that require economic analysis. The second would be the Industry Analysis Division, which would collect and analyze key data sets that the agency relies on to understand market trends. The third would be the Auctions Division. These days, people tend to think about wireless spectrum when they hear the phrase “FCC auctions.” But the market-based allocation of public resources goes well beyond that. We conduct auctions today on things like distributing federal broadband subsidies and radio licenses — and these auctions currently involve multiple FCC bureaus. So we propose to place the responsibility for structuring auctions within the Office of Economics and Analytics. Fourth and finally, the Office would have a Data Division, which would aim to ensure that data can be shared, compared, and analyzed across different bureaus to better inform the Commission’s work.
Our January 30 agenda will also focus on a key part of the agency’s strategy for closing the digital divide: setting up a major effort to promote broadband deployment in parts of the country currently on the wrong side of that divide (especially rural areas). Last year, in the Connect America Fund Order, the FCC adopted rules for what’s called the “Connect America Fund Phase II.” This decision authorized investment of up to $2 billion over the next decade to bring fixed broadband service to unserved parts of rural America. To maximize the impact and efficiency of this investment, the Commission voted to award this support through a reverse auction.
In three weeks, the Commission will vote on a Public Notice that would finalize the bidding procedures for this first-of-its-kind auction. This is the last significant hurdle before the Phase II auction can get underway. (Speaking of, the Public Notice would set July 24 as the start date for the auction.)
While finalizing the bidding procedures is the most significant step that must be taken before we can begin the auction, it’s not the only one. Multiple parties filed petitions challenging specific aspects of our 2017 Order, such as how to compare bids of different performance levels and our requirements for stand-alone voice service. In addition to the Public Notice described above, the Commission will separately address these challenges, further clearing the path for the Phase II auction to start this summer. Bottom line: We want to get these funds allocated efficiently and quickly to bring digital opportunity to rural America as soon as we can.
In January, we’ll also continue our work to enhance the effectiveness of Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). These alerts deliver public safety warnings to consumers’ cell phones and other mobile devices. When the WEA program launched in 2012, participating wireless providers were required to send the alerts to an area no larger than the county or counties affected by the emergency. In 2016, we improved upon that. We adopted a new requirement that participating wireless providers target alerts to an area that best approximates the area affected by the emergency, even if it’s smaller than a county.
This is meaningful progress. But we can and must do even better when it comes to targeting these alerts. That’s why I’m asking my fellow commissioners to support my proposal to more precisely target these alerts to affected communities. Under this proposal, participating wireless providers would deliver these alerts to match the geographic area specified by the officials sending the alert with no more overshoot than one-tenth of a mile. Pinpointing these alerts will encourage more local officials to use these alerts with confidence during emergencies. They’ll also lead Americans to take more seriously the alerts they receive on their mobile devices. More precise geographic targeting should also lead to fewer people opting out of receiving WEA messages. The proposal also includes additional reforms, such as a requirement that alert messages be preserved in a consumer-accessible format for at least 24 hours after the alert is received. When disaster strikes, an alert on your mobile device might convey life-saving information. We want WEA to be a strong enough system to help you should that moment ever arrive.
Our January meeting will also feature the latest measures in our effort to modernize the FCC’s media rules. Since the late 1930s, the FCC has required broadcast stations that hold FCC licenses or permits to submit paper copies of certain contracts and other documents relating to ownership and control of those stations to the Commission. I’m proposing to eliminate this requirement, which I believe is unnecessary now that the Commission has imposed online public file requirements. In addition, some of our other media rules are obsolete because they address either the analog-to-digital transition for full-power television stations — which ended over eight years ago — or full-power analog television broadcasting — which is no longer permitted. We’ll therefore vote on January 30 on an Order to remove these outdated rules from the Code of Federal Regulations (the official books containing U.S. government regulations).
Finally, we’ll be voting on a matter that’s been developed by the Commission’s Enforcement Bureau. For law enforcement reasons, we can’t discuss it publicly before the January 30 meeting.
As you can see, with holidays behind us, the FCC is hitting the ground running in 2018. Here’s wishing everyone a happy — and productive — 2018.