Digging In for the Long Haul
For the past three weeks, the FCC’s highest priority has been tackling the immediate challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have gotten more than 650 broadband and telephone service providers to take my Keep Americans Connected Pledge, which protects consumers whose lives have been disrupted by the pandemic from disconnection or late fees and opens up providers’ Wi-Fi hotspots to anyone who needs them. Many of those providers have gone even further, upgrading speeds at no charge, improving low-cost or free offerings for low-income Americans and students, lifting data caps, and more. We’ve granted temporary authority to multiple wireless carriers to use additional spectrum to meet increased consumer demand. We’ve made an additional $42 million immediately available to expand telehealth services in rural hospitals and clinics, in addition to many other actions. And just this week, we established a bold, new $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program to address the urgent needs of health care providers and patients across the country.
As we continue our important work directly related to COVID-19, the FCC will also continue our work confronting the longer-term challenges that have been highlighted by pandemic. In particular, at our upcoming meeting on April 23, we will be voting on major initiatives to expand wireless connectivity and further close the digital divide.
Not long ago, being effectively confined to our homes for the foreseeable future would have been difficult to imagine. Now try to imagine what this new era of social distancing would look like without Wi-Fi. Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, Wi-Fi carried more than half of the Internet’s traffic, and offloading mobile data traffic to Wi-Fi was vital to keeping our cellular networks from being overwhelmed. Wi-Fi is the fabric that binds together all our devices. Americans want and need faster, stronger Wi-Fi networks. The good news is that the next generation of Wi-Fi, commonly called Wi-Fi 6, has started rolling out. It will be over two-and-a-half times faster than the current standard.
For some time, I’ve talked about the potential of Wi-Fi 6 to deliver value to the American consumer. Today, I’m taking a critical step to making that potential a reality. I’ve shared with my colleagues my plan to unleash next-generation Wi-Fi — a plan that one champion of innovation has called, “without a doubt the single biggest opportunity in Wi-Fi — and probably in wireless — in a generation.”
Specifically, I have proposed a set of rules to make 1,200 megahertz of spectrum available for unlicensed use in four segments of the 6 GHz band (5.925–7.125 GHz). This band is currently populated by, among others, microwave services that are used to support utilities, public safety, and wireless backhaul. So unlicensed devices will share this spectrum with incumbent licensed services under rules that are carefully crafted to protect those licensed services and to enable both unlicensed and licensed operations to thrive throughout the band. Ultimately, I expect that 6 GHz unlicensed devices will become a part of consumers’ everyday lives. For the rules we will vote on would play a major role in the growth of the Internet of Things, connecting appliances, machines, meters, wearables, and other consumer electronics, as well as industrial sensors for manufacturing. In addition to the Report and Order, we’ll consider a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to explore possibilities for very low power devices in this band.
Better, faster Wi-Fi is a good thing. But cellular technologies are important, too. In fact, recent increases in telework, distance learning, and telehealth services reveal the importance of both kinds of wireless innovation, unlicensed and licensed. That brings me to a topic I’ve talked a lot about during my time as Chairman: 5G. In the not-too-distant future, access to mobile broadband will mean access to 5G. 5G has the potential to bring many benefits to American consumers and businesses, including wireless networks that are more responsive, more secure, and up to 100 times faster than today’s 4G LTE networks. But we need to make sure that 5G narrows rather than widens the digital divide, and that rural Americans too benefit from the wireless innovation on our doorstep.
That’s why the Commission’s April meeting will feature a plan to establish a 5G Fund for rural America. This proposal would use multi-round reverse auctions to distribute up to $9 billion, in two phases, to bring 5G service to rural areas of our country. Phase I of the 5G Fund would target at least $8 billion of support over ten years to rural areas of our country that would be unlikely to be covered by the commitments made by New T-Mobile as part of its acquisition of Sprint (including coverage of 90% of rural Americans with 5G service at 50 Mbps or greater over the next six years) and that we anticipate would not see timely deployment of 5G service absent universal service support. To balance our policy goal of efficiently and quickly redirecting high-cost support to areas where it is most needed with our obligation to ensure that we have an accurate understanding of the extent of nationwide mobile wireless broadband deployment, we seek public input on two options for identifying areas that would be eligible for 5G Fund support.
Another huge new opportunity to close the digital divide in rural America comes from major advances in satellite-delivered broadband. The Commission is moving forward with two important initiatives to unlock the potential of this technology. Here’s the context. Instead of sending one large satellite into a high orbit, we can now send a whole bunch of them into low- or mid-Earth orbit. These non-geostationary satellite orbit, or NGSO, constellations will create a mesh network of satellites in space that hold the potential to provide consumer-focused residential broadband at a speed and price-point that is competitive with terrestrial broadband offerings.
However, one downside of dramatically increasing the number of new satellites in orbit is the risk of increased orbital debris. And as we know from the movie “Gravity,” in space, even a centimeter-wide object can wreak devastating damage. In three weeks, the Commission will therefore vote on a Report and Order to comprehensively update the Commission’s existing rules regarding orbital debris mitigation, which were adopted in 2004. These new rules are designed to address the problem of orbital debris, while at the same time not creating undue regulatory obstacles to new satellite ventures. We would also seek comment on adopting a performance bond tied to successful spacecraft disposal.
To promote new and expanded services using NGSO constellations, the Commission is committed to giving every company a fair shot at innovating and competing in the U.S. market. That’s why we have already approved a number of applications for this new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite constellations. And at our April meeting, the Commission will vote on an Order to approve ViaSat’s request for market access for a constellation of 20 satellites that will provide fixed-satellite service.
Making sure advanced communications are available to all Americans means making sure they are accessible to Americans with disabilities. Video description makes television programming accessible to the blind or visually impaired by inserting an audio description of the program. The Commission’s rules currently require certain commercial television broadcast stations in only the top 60 television markets to provide video-described programming. I have shared a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that tentatively concludes we should expand the Commission’s video description regulations by phasing them in for an additional 10 markets each year for the next four years. The NPRM also proposes that the Commission seek further comment in 2023 on whether to expand its video description to markets beyond the top 100 after 2024.
Rounding out our April agenda will be a Report and Order to update our technical rules for Low-Power FM (LPFM) stations. There are now over 2,100 LPFM stations, and the LPFM have matured since engineering requirements were first established in 2000. This maturation means that LPFM stations should be able to take advantage of additional engineering options to improve reception. That’s why the Commission will be voting on new rules to improve reception and increase flexibility while maintaining interference protection and the core LPFM goals of diversity and localism. These reforms include expanded LPFM use of directional antennas and permitting LPFM use of FM booster stations. During this difficult time, broadcasters of all sizes have been critical in providing their communities with up-to-date information, and LPFM stations have certainly done their part. Like WNQZ-LP in New Orleans, which has been carrying locally produced public service announcements. Or WOMP-LP in Cambridge, Ohio, which has been carrying local church services, serving the elderly and low-income Americans who are particularly isolated and lack access to streaming services. And KDRT-LP in Davis, California, which stepped up to serve its community after the local college radio station was forced off the air by the pandemic. These are just a few examples of how the LPFM service has risen to the challenge presented by COVID-19.
The FCC’s work to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19 will continue full speed ahead in April. But as this full agenda makes clear, the coronavirus pandemic won’t stop the FCC from also getting our work to meet the longer-term challenges highlighted by the pandemic. Thank you to all of the Commission staff who worked on these important matters under trying circumstances. And to everyone out there: Stay vigilant. Stay healthy. And stay home.