Bread and Butter
Since my first day as FCC Chairman, closing the digital divide has been my top priority. Meeting that priority has inspired our bread-and-butter work over the past three years. And the importance of extending Internet access to every American has never been clearer than during the coronavirus pandemic. If you don’t have an Internet connection at home, you don’t have the option of teleworking. Your children can’t participate in distance learning. And you can’t take advantage of telehealth visits with your doctor from the safety of your own home.
I’m proud that we’ve made significant progress over the past three years in reducing the number of Americans without access to high-speed broadband. By removing regulatory barriers to infrastructure deployment, we’ve helped bring the broadband industry’s investment in network infrastructure to the highest levels in more than a decade. From 2016 to 2018, the number of Americans without access to 25/3 Mbps fixed broadband service fell by more than 30%. During that same time period, the number of Americans with access to 250/20 Mbps fixed broadband service more than doubled. And 2018 and 2019 were record years for fiber deployment in the United States.
But despite these gains, we still have more work to do, and our primary vehicle for closing the remaining connectivity gap is our Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Established this January, the Fund will provide up to $20.4 billion to support the deployment of high-speed broadband networks in those parts of rural America that currently lack fixed broadband service that meets the Commission’s baseline speed standards of 25/3 Mbps. At our upcoming open meeting on June 9, the Commission will be taking a major step forward with respect to the first — and largest — round of support from this program. We will be voting on the auction procedures for Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will target up to $16.4 billion over 10 years to deploy broadband networks in wholly unserved areas covering nearly six million unserved homes and businesses. Adopting these auction procedures now will allow service providers that hope to bid in the auction to start planning for the upcoming October 29, 2020 start date. We are moving forward quickly in order to make sure that areas we know don’t have broadband service — where as many as 11.7 million Americans live and work — get it as quickly as possible.
If closing the digital divide has been my number 1 priority as FCC Chairman, I think it’s fair to say that promoting innovation and investment in 5G wireless technology has been priority 1A. And our June agenda will feature two items to help spur 5G deployment.
One key to unleashing 5G has been repurposing high-band, millimeter-wave frequencies. Previously, these bands were considered unsuitable for broadband, but with advances in technology, we can now use these airwaves to transmit data at ultra-fast speeds and with very low latency. The Commission has already released more than 5 gigahertz of millimeter-wave spectrum for 5G, most recently by auctioning the Upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz bands in Auction 103, which wrapped up in March. And I’ve circulated a proposal for our June meeting to explore innovative new uses of the 71–76 GHz, 81–86 GHz, 92–94 GHz, and 94.1–95 GHz bands, collectively known as the 70/80/90 GHz bands. In particular, we will be seeking comment on potential rule changes for commercial users to facilitate the provision of wireless backhaul for 5G, as well as the deployment of broadband services to aircraft and ships, in these bands. Because this is co-primary spectrum for federal and non-federal users, we will coordinate any proposed rule changes with affected agencies through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
In addition to pushing more spectrum into the marketplace, a key component of the Commission’s 5G FAST strategy has been updating our wireless infrastructure policies to encourage private-sector investment in 5G networks. Commissioner Carr has taken the lead on this effort, and he spearheaded an item that will be part of the Commission’s June agenda. This latest attempt to modernize our wireless infrastructure rules will clarify the Commission’s interpretation of section 6409(a) of the Spectrum Act. That section provides in part that “a State or local government may not deny, and shall approve, any eligible facilities request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station.” In plain English, we want to resolve uncertainty about section 6409(a) in order to expedite the process for state and local governments to review applications to deploy wireless infrastructure. Commissioner Carr will be issuing more details about this proposal soon.
Commissioner Carr actually ran point on another item on our June agenda: a proposal to spur the transition to ATSC 3.0, the next-generation standard for broadcast TV. The digital TV transition promised to make new digital services available over broadcaster’s existing spectrum, in addition to traditional video programming. However, this potential has never been realized. The ATSC 3.0 standard promises to finally realize the potential for broadcast spectrum capacity to support “Broadcast Internet” services — digital services beyond traditional over-the-air video, integrated into the broadband ecosystem. At our June meeting, we will be voting on a Declaratory Ruling that would clarify how long-standing television station ownership rules apply to the lease of spectrum to provide Broadcast Internet services. This decision would remove regulatory uncertainty that could hinder the development of new innovation using available broadcast airwaves. We will also be considering seeking comment on the extent to which the Commission should clarify or modify its existing rules in order to further promote the deployment of Broadcast Internet services as part of the transition to ATSC 3.0.
Rounding out our June agenda will be an item from our Enforcement Bureau, which I am unable to discuss in greater detail at this time.
As we enter our third month of social distancing, I know people are yearning for a return to normalcy. By moving forward with a new round of measures to close the digital divide and promote 5G deployment, hopefully the FCC’s June agenda will provide a dose of familiarity during these uncertain times.