A New Look for Familiar Themes
If you had to pick a central theme for the FCC’s work this fall, it would probably be unleashing mid-band spectrum for 5G wireless services. Since the last week of August, we’ve successfully completed the auction of 70 megahertz of licensed spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band — the first-ever auction of mid-band spectrum for 5G in the U.S. We proposed rules for making 100 megahertz of spectrum in the 3.45–3.55 GHz band available for innovative commercial operations. And we are on track to hold an auction of the lower 280 megahertz of the C-band, starting on December 8.
Now, just as the leaves are changing colors here in our nation’s capital, the Commission is moving forward on a new mid-band spectrum proposal with a slightly different look. The major new item on our November meeting agenda would repurpose mid-band spectrum for Wi-Fi and modern transportation-related communications.
Here’s the background. In 1999, the FCC allocated 75 megahertz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for a service called Dedicated Short-Range Communications. Commonly known as DSRC, this technology was intended to help meet the nation’s transportation needs into the next century and improve the safety of our nation’s highways. Unfortunately, after two decades, DSRC has barely been deployed, meaning this spectrum has been largely unused.
At our November open meeting, the Commission will vote on rules to make the lower 45 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band available for unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi. While DSRC has been stuck in neutral for the past two decades, Wi-Fi has flourished. Americans increasingly rely on Wi-Fi for everything from doing their jobs to accessing healthcare and education, and this trend has only accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Making more spectrum available for Wi-Fi is critical to meeting America’s growing connectivity needs, and adding the lower 45 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band to the mix would create a 160-megahertz wide Wi-Fi channel, which can enable gigabit connectivity in homes, schools, small businesses, and healthcare facilities. The 5.9 GHz band can also help improve and expand broadband access in both rural and urban America. We have seen a preview of this potential during the pandemic. The FCC has granted temporary access to over 100 wireless Internet service providers, or WISPs, to use the spectrum. And providers ranging from New York City to Luckey, Ohio report that use of the 5.9 GHz band has helped them increase speeds, decrease congestion, and extend coverage areas. The new rules that we will be considering next month would create a path for these WISPs to use this spectrum permanently.
The new rules would also transition the upper 30 megahertz of this band away from DSRC to enable a different automotive communications technology called Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything, or C-V2X. C-V2X uses cellular protocols to provide direct communications between vehicles and, as the name suggests, everything — including other vehicles on the road, infrastructure like light poles, cyclists, pedestrians, and road workers.
Defenders of DSRC will undoubtedly complain about this decision. But here’s the plain truth: DSRC has done virtually nothing over the past 21 years to improve automotive safety. And looking to the future, time after time, we’ve been told that success for DSRC is just around the corner. But time after time, those predictions have proven false. So when I hear the arguments of those entrenched corporate interests who want to continue to squat on 75 megahertz of prime mid-band spectrum for DSRC, I’m reminded of the old adage about the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. By contrast, C-V2X is a newer technology that shows great promise, which is why automakers here and around the globe are turning the page on DSRC and moving to implement C-V2X. So should we.
In short, if adopted, these new rules for the 5.9 GHz band would deliver a win for American consumers and a win for automotive safety.
And now ad astra, as a Kansan might say. Next on our November agenda, we’ll have a pair of items to update our rules for satellite services.
The first is a Report and Order that would create a new unified license for a broad array of satellite and blanket-licensed earth station operations. Under our current rules, the Commission issues separate licenses for earth stations and space stations in a satellite system. The redundancies in the two separate licensing processes create unnecessary regulatory burdens that can slow the deployment of new services. By creating an optional framework for authorizing both blanket-licensed earth stations and space stations of a satellite system through a unified license, we will align the build-out requirements for earth stations and space stations and eliminate unnecessary reporting rules and paperwork. These changes will reduce burdens on applicants and Commission staff while providing additional operational flexibility.
The second satellite item on our November agenda is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that seeks comment on encouraging more efficient use of spectrum from 17.3–17.8 GHz. The need for additional downlink capacity is growing as a result of high-throughput satellite communications. To help meet this demand, I have circulated a proposal to permit use of the 17.3–17.8 GHz band for space-to-Earth service subject to technical rules that would prevent harmful interference between stations or services in this band. I am also proposing to include the 17.3–18.3 GHz, 18.8–19.4 GHz, 19.6–19.7 GHz, 27.5–28.35 GHz, and 28.6–29.1 GHz frequency bands in an “Extended Ka-band,” and extend routine license application processing criteria to earth stations communicating with geostationary orbit space stations in these bands. Ultimately, we hope that both of these items will help foster additional satellite-based services.
Next up on our diverse November lineup is a proposal to complete the process of updating the mechanism for the funding of Internet-based telecommunications relay services (TRS). Relay services, such as captioned telephone service (which allows individuals with hearing loss to both read captions and use their residual hearing to understand a phone conversation), are invaluable for many Americans who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, or have speech disabilities. When the Commission first authorized use of the Internet to provide TRS, it decided as an interim measure that the costs of providing Internet-based TRS should be paid by contributors to the TRS Fund, based only on their interstate telecommunications revenue. In 2019, the Commission recognized that this interim funding mechanism, which disproportionately burdens providers and users of interstate services, was no longer justifiable as a means of supporting one Internet-based form of TRS — Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS). Therefore, the Commission modified the cost recovery rules for IP CTS to expand the TRS Fund contribution base for that service to include intrastate as well as interstate end-user revenues. For our November meeting, I’m proposing that we expand the TRS Fund contribution base for the other two forms of Internet-based TRS — video relay service (VRS) and Internet Protocol Relay Service (IP Relay) — so that providers of intrastate voice communications must contribute to the TRS Fund for the support of these services as well. I believe this rule change would ensure fair treatment of intrastate and interstate service providers in TRS funding and the long-term sustainability of the TRS Fund.
In the latest offering from our Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative, we’ll consider a Report and Order to change the Commission’s rules governing the resolution of program carriage disputes between video programming vendors and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs). Our rules currently provide that three events trigger a one-year statute of limitations, which restricts the period in which a video programming vendor may file a program carriage complaint against an MVPD. The third prong of this rule, however, allows a vendor to notify an MVPD whenever it wants — potentially years after a dispute and potential rule violation — that it intends to file a complaint, and then file a complaint within one year of that notice. This undermines the fundamental purpose of a statute of limitations, which is to ensure the timely filing of complaints. Our revision of the rule would clarify that the one-year period under this prong begins to run when an MVPD rejects or fails to acknowledge a request for program carriage or request to negotiate for program carriage. To provide additional clarity to both potential complainants and defendants, as well as adjudicators, the new rules would also modify the effective dates for program carriage decisions by our Administrative Law Judge to match those currently applicable to other such ALJ decisions. We would also harmonize our rules, where possible, for the resolution of program carriage, program access, retransmission consent, and open video system (OVS) complaints in these areas. These changes would help to ensure an expeditious program access, program carriage, retransmission consent, and OVS complaint process.
Rounding out our November agenda will be an item from our Enforcement Bureau, which I am unable to discuss at this time.
While the seasons and the colors of the leaves might be changing, the FCC continues to move forward with a broad palate of initiatives to update our rules and promote the public interest.