Innovation Month at the FCC
Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. Fittingly, I’m announcing an agenda for the Commission’s February meeting that revisits some familiar themes from the past year: modernizing outdated rules, closing the digital divide, and most significantly, promoting innovation.
Topping the agenda for Innovation Month will be a proposal to unleash new wireless services and technologies in frequencies above 95 GHz. Traditionally, these airwaves haven’t been viewed as well-suited for communications services. But recent advancements in propagation technology have changed the equation and expanded the boundary of usable spectrum. As a result, these very high-band frequencies are today’s spectrum horizons.
In 2016, the Commission sought public comment on new possible uses for spectrum above 95 GHz. American innovators responded with a wide array of suggestions, ranging from fixed wireless service to backhaul for 5G systems to Wi-Fi-like unlicensed applications to next-generation satellite services.
The time has come to let go of the reins with respect to these very high bands and start empowering U.S. innovators to test their ideas. That’s why I’ve circulated my Spectrum Horizons proposal to open up this spectrum and create a new testbed for technological progress. Specifically, I’m seeking input on whether to make available up to 102 gigahertz of spectrum for licensed use, two-thirds of which would be shared with satellite services. (Just to give you a sense of how much spectrum that is, most spectrum currently in use for common commercial services — everything from AM radio to Wi-Fi — takes up less than 6 gigahertz total, although we continue to push the bounds higher.) I’m also asking whether we should allocate 15.2 gigahertz of spectrum for unlicensed use in four different bands. Finally, in the spirit of “you don’t know until you try,” I’m proposing to add a new type of experimental license that would permit experimental use in any frequency from 95 GHz to 3 THz and would provide more flexibility for license holders. Now, I recognize that most of this spectrum is currently shared between federal government agencies and non-federal users, so this plan would continue close coordination with the executive branch. If this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is approved at our February meeting, I hope to get good public feedback on these ideas and then act quickly. If we broaden our nation’s spectrum horizons, we’ll keep the United States in the lead when it comes to technological innovation.
Unleashing spectrum is just one part of the Commission’s pro-innovation strategy. Another is streamlining the Commission’s processes. Entrepreneurs are constantly developing new technologies and services. But too often, they’re unable to bring them quickly to market for consumers because regulatory inertia stands in the way. Unfortunately, the FCC can suffer from this government-wide problem.
The FCC should facilitate, rather than frustrate, innovation. Accordingly, early in my Chairmanship, I declared that the Commission would adhere to Section 7 of the Communications Act. Section 7 instructs the Commission to respond to petitions or applications proposing new technologies and services within one year. The provision was established by Congress in 1983, but it’s long been ignored — in fact, the FCC has not established any guidelines or rules in 35 years and has never embraced the statutory mandate of section 7! At our February meeting, we’ll vote on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that ultimately aims to codify Section 7’s commitment to prompt action in the Commission’s rules. Establishing clear guidelines and procedures for Section 7 implementation would ensure that new technologies and services are identified early in the process, and that the FCC takes timely action where approval of these new technologies or services would serve the public interest. Bottom line: government shouldn’t be a bottleneck for entrepreneurs looking to design a better mousetrap.
In addition to these pro-innovation proposals, the FCC is set to take another step forward in our work to close the digital divide. Last year, the Commission created a plan to invest $4.5 billion over the next 10 years to expand 4G LTE service to areas that don’t have it. The Commission then received petitions for reconsideration for certain aspects of that Mobility Fund II Report & Order. In three weeks, the Commission will vote on an item to resolve those aspects of the petitions that haven’t yet been addressed. Resolving these questions would move us closer to the start of the Mobility Fund II reverse auction, and eventually the end of dead spots in rural America where wireless coverage simply isn’t available.
Our February agenda is rounded out by three items that aim to remove outdated and unnecessary regulations. Two of these are products of the Commission’s Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative.
FCC rules require Commission staff to conduct a mid-term review of certain broadcast stations’ equal employment opportunity (EEO) practices around the midpoint of broadcasters’ eight-year license terms. To help facilitate such a review, the Commission currently requires these broadcast stations to submit a form providing certain information that, with one exception, is also available in stations’ online public files. But in the digital era, it doesn’t make much sense to require someone to file what you can already access online. I’m therefore asking my colleagues to consider eliminating this filing requirement, while simultaneously maintaining the mid-term review.
Next, as some may recall, the first rulemaking to come out of our initiative to modernize our media rules was a proposal to eliminate the rule requiring certain broadcast and cable entities to maintain paper copies of the Commission’s regulations. We received unanimous support for this proposal, given that this information is now available and easily accessible online (if you’re seeing a trend here — bing!). So today, I’m sharing an Order that would eliminate this outdated and unnecessary requirement.
Rounding out our February agenda will be a Report and Order to eliminate the annual audit and associated reporting requirement for payphone service providers. As fewer and fewer people use payphones, compliance with these rules now costs carriers a large fraction of, if not more than, the total compensation the audits are meant to verify (you read that correctly). This Order would also eliminate interim and intermediate per-payphone compensation rules that no longer apply to any entity.
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In February, the Commission is yet again taking concrete action to unleash innovation, close the digital divide, and modernize our rules. And regardless of whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow tomorrow, we’ll keep returning to these themes time and again so long as I have the privilege of leading this agency.