I recently watched the 1985 classic “Back to the Future.” At the end of the movie, Marty McFly warns Dr. Emmett Brown as they prepare to head into the future, “Hey Doc, we better back up. We don’t have enough road to get up to 88.” Dr. Brown replies, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
It turns out that Dr. Brown was wrong; in 2017, we still need roads. But even more, what paves the way in the 21st century is high-speed Internet access, or broadband. That’s certainly what we believe here at the FCC. And that’s why our goal is to make sure that every American can get faster, cheaper, and better broadband.
Next-generation networks are hard to build. It takes a lot of money and effort to lay fiber, install wireless infrastructure, build satellite earth stations, and more. It also requires a reasonably certain business case for deployment, which is all too often hard to prove in parts of the country with sparse population and/or lower incomes.
But the benefits of doing so are tremendous. Infrastructure investment is critical to closing the digital divide in our country and bringing high-speed Internet access to more rural Americans. Broadband has also made many sectors of the economy more productive, from shipping to energy. And it’s has given birth to entirely new industries, like the mobile apps economy, telemedicine, online education, and the nascent Internet of Things.
To bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans, the FCC needs to make it easier for companies to build and expand broadband networks. We need to reduce the cost of broadband deployment, and we need to eliminate unnecessary rules that slow down or deter deployment. At next month’s Commission meeting on April 20, the FCC will be voting on a number of proposals to do just that. That’s why we are calling April “Infrastructure Month” at the FCC. (These proposals are described below; in a continuation of my initiative on openness and transparency, I’ve linked to the actual text of these proposals, and you can also find and read them at www.fcc.gov.)
1. Wired Infrastructure. — In one set of proposals, I’m asking my colleagues to support rules that would facilitate the construction of wired networks. For example, attaching Internet-related equipment to utility poles is a major cost element for companies of all sizes. We’ll seek to both lower costs for and speed deployment of this equipment. I’m also proposing rules to allow companies to speed the retirement of legacy copper networks, some of which were installed many decades ago, and expedite the transition to newer, more resilient, higher-capacity fiber-based networks and services. After all, every dollar spent maintaining the fading networks of yesterday is a dollar that can’t be spent building the networks of tomorrow. Finally, I am teeing up questions about whether state and local regulations are stifling network deployment and whether the FCC should consider using its authority to preempt any unnecessary regulatory roadblocks.
2. Wireless Infrastructure. — Next, the Commission will focus on the wireless side of the equation. The wireless networks of the future will look very different. Instead of tall towers you can see from a mile away, there will be small cells — wireless access points you might not even see and/or could hold in your hands. With this “densification” of so-called 5G networks, we’ll need to deploy millions of small cells in order to realize the promise of multi-gigabit connectivity through millimeter-wave technology. That’s why I’m advancing proposals to make it easier for the private sector to build these “5G” networks. We’ll aim to expedite state and local approval of infrastructure deployment applications and streamline our own rules to account for these new networks. Regulations designed for big towers don’t necessarily make sense for small cells. So we need to modernize our rules to keep up with technology.
3. Business Data Services. — Speaking of modernizing our rules that affect infrastructure investment, next month we’ll also vote on new rules to update the rules for business data services (BDS), otherwise known as “special access.” BDS involves network connections used by businesses, non-profits, and government institutions to securely move large amounts of data. ATM withdrawals and credit card transactions are examples of how we rely on these services.
Twelve years ago, the Commission began to study the business data services market to see if changing market conditions warranted changes to our rules. At long last, the time for action has arrived. I’m proposing that we take a balanced approach to reforming the rules governing this marketplace. The extensive record compiled by the Commission’s excellent staff shows substantial and growing competition in many areas of the country, thanks to new market entrants like cable companies. Where this competition exists, we will relax unnecessary regulation, thereby creating greater incentives for the private sector to invest in next-generation networks. But where competition is still lacking, we’ll preserve regulations necessary to prevent anti-competitive price increases.
4. Facilitating Rural Deployment. — As I mentioned earlier, there are some parts of this country, primarily rural America, where the business case for broadband deployment is very difficult, and the private sector lacks the economic incentives to build out next-generation networks no matter how many regulatory barriers the Commission removes. For those areas that are the most expensive to serve, the Commission provides direct support to companies through the Universal Service Fund (USF). The USF’s high-cost program subsidizes broadband deployment for small carriers. I am proposing that we tweak one of the rules for that program to make sure that some rural households that could be served by these carriers are not left stranded without broadband service.
While infrastructure will be the focus of the Commission’s April meeting, it won’t be the only subject we’re addressing. If we’re majoring in infrastructure next month, you could say that we’re minoring in media, with three items on the agenda.
5. Easing Burdens on Noncommercial Stations. — Recently, the FCC adopted a rule requiring officers and members of boards of directors of noncommercial educational (NCE) broadcaster stations to provide personal information to the FCC. However, public television and radio stations have complained that this rule is discouraging volunteers from serving in these positions. In my view, we should be thanking people who want to serve their community in this way, not imposing unnecessary regulatory burdens upon them. So next month, we’ll be voting to eliminate this rule.
6. Allowing Broadcasters to Raise Funds for Charity. — We will also consider giving NCE broadcasters more flexibility to raise money for disaster relief groups, charities, and other non-profit organizations. In the past, the FCC has granted waivers to allow NCE television and radio stations to solicit donations for causes such as Hurricane Katrina and Haitian earthquake relief. I believe that we should make it easier for stations to engage in this type of activity so long as it doesn’t compromise their non-commercial nature. That’s why I’m proposing that stations be allowed to devote no more than 1% of their total annual airtime to fundraising for non-profit organizations. Moreover, because certain stations have indicated that they have no interest in engaging in such activity, this rule change would not apply to stations funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
7. UHF Discount. — Finally, we’ll consider whether to restore the so-called Ultra-High Frequency, or UHF discount, which is related to the Commission’s national television ownership cap. Last September, the FCC voted to eliminate the discount on a party-line vote. That decision has been challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In my view, the FCC is likely to lose that litigation because it went about eliminating the UHF discount in the wrong way. So I’m proposing that we hit the reset button, returning the rule to the way it was up until last fall. And then we’ll launch a comprehensive review of the national ownership cap, including the UHF discount, later this year.
* * *
Keeping with recent trends, the FCC’s April meeting will be a busy one. But it’ll be an important one — Infrastructure Month will present several chances for the FCC to promote deployment and benefit consumers across America. Infrastructure might not be as flashy as a flux capacitor, but it’ll be a 1.21 gigawatt jolt for the digital economy.