October has arrived, which means there’s a chill in the air, baseball playoffs on TV, and pumpkin spice in places where it doesn’t belong. Of course, there is no greater October tradition than Halloween. While nobody is quite sure what trick-or-treating will look like in a time of social distancing, I can say for sure that the agenda for the Commission’s October meeting will be filled with treats for consumers and innovators.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to start off that meeting by discussing a trick. In 2017, numerous Washington politicians, far-left special-interest groups, Hollywood stars, and Silicon Valley tech giants, as well as many in the media, tried to scare the American people about what would happen once the FCC adopted the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. In that order, we overturned the previous Administration’s decision to heavily regulate the Internet like a slow-moving utility under rules developed in the 1930s and restored the longstanding, bipartisan, market-based approach. The American people were told that they would get the Internet one word at a time. They were told that they would have to pay $5 per tweet. They were told that it would be the end of the Internet as we know it. It was frightening stuff to be sure, but it was utter nonsense.
Well, in December 2017, we ignored the falsehoods (and the ruckus they created, which included death threats, a bomb threat that forced us to recess our Commission meeting, and targeted harassment) and did the right thing. We replaced the prior Administration’s heavy-handed regulations with a consistent, light-touch regulatory approach that protects the free and open Internet, encourages infrastructure investment, and requires strong transparency from broadband providers for consumers and innovators alike.
And what’s been the result? The Internet has remained free and open. And it’s stronger than ever. Millions more Americans have access to the Internet today than in 2017. In 2018 and then again in 2019, the United States set records for annual fiber deployment, and we’ve seen network investment hit levels that our nation hadn’t seen for over a decade. In fact, since we adopted the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, average download speeds for fixed broadband in the United States have doubled, increasing by over 99% (so much for getting the Internet one word at a time). And in 2018 and 2019, we added over 72,000 wireless cell sites in the United States, after adding fewer than 20,000 in the prior four years.
Moreover, during the pandemic, our networks have held up extremely well. Not only have they handled the surge in Internet traffic, but average speeds have actually gone up over the past six months. We haven’t had to follow the path of some other countries, which embraced utility-style Internet regulation and, after years of subpar infrastructure investment, had to ask streaming services like Netflix and YouTube to proactively throttle consumers’ video streams from HD to SD.
The FCC scored a major victory when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the vast majority of our decision in the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. However, the court asked us to consider in more detail three discrete issues — namely, (1) the Order’s effect on public safety; (2) its effect on our ability to regulate pole attachments; and (3) its effect on the Lifeline program’s ability to support broadband. Months ago, we put out a Public Notice seeking input on these three issues. Having reviewed the input received, the law, and the facts, I am confident that the regulatory framework we set forth in the Restoring Internet Freedom Order appropriately and adequately addresses each issue. Accordingly, I have circulated an Order for consideration at our October meeting addressing the points raised by the D.C. Circuit. It affirms that the FCC stands by the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, consistent with the practical reality consumers have experienced since December 2017 of an Internet economy that is better, stronger, and freer than ever.
One treat everyone is hoping for — the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of telecom, if you will — is 5G. We anticipate that the deployment of 5G-capable networks will deliver better services for consumers, drive job creation, and strengthen the nation’s economy and our quality of life. But we need to make sure that 5G narrows rather than widens the digital divide — and that means making sure that rural Americans also benefit from the next generation of wireless innovation
Today, I circulated rules to establish a 5G Fund for Rural America. The new program would use multi-round reverse auctions to distribute up to $9 billion, in two phases, to bring voice and 5G broadband service to rural areas of our country that would be unlikely to see the deployment of 5G-capable networks without subsidies. Building upon lessons learned from the Mobility Fund, and overwhelming support in the factual record we’ve developed, we would adopt our proposal to determine which areas will be eligible for 5G Fund support based on improved mobile broadband coverage data that will be gathered through the Commission’s new Digital Opportunity Data Collection. This approach won’t be the fastest possible path to the Phase I auction, but it will allow us to identify with greater precision those areas of the country where support is most needed and will be spent most efficiently.
This is just one of two major items on our October agenda to expand wireless broadband connectivity in rural America. The second involves slivers of spectrum in the TV broadcast bands and 600 MHz frequencies that are not being used for other authorized services. Unlicensed devices can operate in these so-called “white spaces.” These airwaves cover a lot of ground (they have excellent “propagation characteristics,” in the parlance), which makes them particularly attractive for delivering wireless broadband services in rural areas and areas where fewer broadcast television stations operate.
In three weeks, the Commission will vote on a Report and Order that would make targeted changes to our white space device rules by expanding these devices’ ability to provide broadband coverage in rural and unserved areas while still protecting television broadcasters in the band. The Order would also modify our rules to facilitate the development of new and innovative narrowband Internet of Things devices in TV white spaces. We expect that these changes will spur continued growth of the white space ecosystem and help to close the digital divide.
The deployment of wireless infrastructure continues to be a priority for American consumers who are increasingly relying on mobile devices, and the Commission accordingly continues to explore ways to reduce regulatory barriers to such deployment. We’ll vote on our latest proposal this month. Here’s the context: When it comes to building out 5G networks, using existing infrastructure is often a more efficient alternative to the construction of new infrastructure. 5G networks will require deployment of a significant number of additional antennas, many of which could be placed on existing infrastructure. But these existing towers may need additional equipment on the ground to support the operation of these antennas. To facilitate the collocation of antennas and associated ground equipment, the Commission will vote on a proposal to further streamline the state and local government review process for limited modifications to existing wireless infrastructure. Congress limited state and local jurisdictions’ authority to deny these modifications in 2012, under section 6409(a) of the Spectrum Act. Under the order we will vote on this month, excavation and deployment up to 30 feet in any direction outside of the existing site would not “substantially change” the physical dimensions of the facility and therefore would not disqualify the collocation from streamlined state and local review. I would like to thank Commissioner Carr for his leadership on this Order in particular and the Commission’s wireless infrastructure efforts generally.
Next on our October agenda will be a handful of items to make sure the Commission’s rules are keeping pace with changes in the marketplace.
As part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress imposed requirements that local telephone companies (known as incumbent local exchange carriers) make portions of their networks available to competitors on an unbundled basis at regulated rates, and that they make certain services available for resale to competitors at regulated rates. But the communications landscape has transformed dramatically over the last 23 years. The voice and broadband marketplaces are filled with competition from a multitude of providers using a variety of technologies and offering capabilities and services unforeseen in 1996. The Commission has repeatedly adjusted the incumbent LEC-specific obligations in the 1996 Act, including unbundling and resale requirements, to account for changed circumstances. Given the dramatic change in the market in recent years and continued vigorous debate on this topic, I encouraged industry to negotiate and propose solutions for the path forward in this area. INCOMPAS and USTelecom led negotiations and ultimately submitted two compromise proposals, helping us close out one of the most contentious issues underlying the 1996 Act — the appropriate scope of the Commission’s unbundling rules. I want to thank them for coming to the table in good faith and doing the painstaking work that consensus-building requires. Based on their work, I’ve circulated a Report and Order that would continue to modernize these requirements and would end unbundling and resale requirements where they stifle the transition to IP networks and broadband deployment. At the same time, it would preserve unbundling requirements where they are still necessary to realize the 1996 Act’s goal of robust intermodal competition benefiting all Americans.
The revitalization of the AM radio service has long been a passion of mine, which is why I am pleased that this month we will also consider an item that will continue our efforts to help AM radio operators keep pace with changes in the market. AM radio stations are currently authorized to operate with either analog signals or hybrid signals, which combine analog and digital signals. However, analog signals are increasingly subject to interference from electronic devices, and due to a number of technical constraints of the AM band and limitations of the HD Radio hybrid mode, fewer than 250 AM stations have implemented hybrid operations. This October, the Commission will vote on a Report and Order that would give AM broadcasters the option to convert to all-digital operations, which offer listeners a higher quality audio experience over a greater area. Since all-digital broadcasting would be on a voluntary basis, AM operators would decide for themselves if the transition is right for them and their listeners. I will note one interesting data point: WWFD in Frederick, Maryland has transitioned to digital AM through special temporary authority, and has gone from having no ratings in the market to a being a Nielsen-ranked station. This hints at digital AM’s potential to bring AM stations back from the brink of extinction to become competitive players in the market.
On October 27, we’ll also be updating our rules to make sure more television programming is accessible to Americans with disabilities. Audio description makes television programming accessible to the blind or visually impaired by inserting a narrated audio description of a program’s key visual elements at breaks in the dialogue. The Commission’s rules currently require certain commercial television broadcast stations in only the top 60 television markets to provide video-described programming. In a few weeks, we’ll vote on new rules to expand the Commission’s video description regulations by phasing them in for an additional 10 markets each year for the next four years. Additionally, we’ll be revising our rules to adopt the term “audio description” instead of “video description,” a recommendation made by disability rights advocates, including the Commission’s Disability Advisory Committee. This will ensure that the Commission uses the terminology currently used throughout the federal government and the industry, providing consistency for everyone.
Rounding out our monthly meeting will be an Enforcement Bureau item, the details of which cannot be disclosed at this time.
Here’s wishing everyone a happy October. Stay safe, and happy Halloween in advance!