Modernization Month at the FCC

This week, I had the opportunity to travel to Texas to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey and to learn first-hand from local, state, and federal officials about the response and recovery efforts. While many parts of southeast Texas are still drying out, the country is also paying attention to Hurricane Irma as it sweeps through the Caribbean and bears down on Florida. As with Harvey, the Commission is working closely with our partners to monitor Irma’s impact on communication networks and support restoration and recovery efforts.

Although these historic storms have understandably been the Commission’s top priority over the past two weeks, the everyday work of the Commission goes on. And today, we are announcing a robust agenda for our September open meeting.

Since becoming Chairman, I have consistently emphasized the need for the Commission’s regulations to match realities of the current marketplace. Our rules must reflect today’s technological and economic conditions, not those of yesterday. And at this month’s open meeting, we will advance this objective by focusing on whether to update or scrap outdated rules. That’s why we’re dubbing September Modernization Month at the FCC.

I already previewed two of the items yesterday at the Radio Show in Austin, Texas. One is the first product of the comprehensive review of our media regulations which we launched this May. The goal of this review is to update our media rules to reflect today’s media marketplace.

It turns out that one obsolete FCC media rule on the books is literally about books of FCC media rules. The Commission currently requires certain broadcasters and cable operators to maintain paper copies of FCC rules. With this information now available online, where it can easily be accessed from your smartphone, that doesn’t make sense. So we’ll be voting on a proposal to eliminate this outdated requirement.

And this is just the start of our media modernization efforts. The Commission received many good suggestions for rules that need to be revised or repealed. So for the foreseeable future, I’ll be sharing with my fellow Commissioners each and every month at least one Notice of Proposed Rulemaking teeing up unnecessary media regulations that should be eliminated or modified.

The second item I discussed at the Radio Show is an Order that would update our AM radio regulations as part of our AM Revitalization Initiative. Specifically, we’ll vote on relaxing certain technical rules applicable to AM broadcasters operating directional antenna arrays in order to ease the regulatory and financial burdens faced by these broadcasters.

Of course, when it comes to the media space, the FCC’s broadcast rules aren’t the only ones in need of modernization. Our cable regulations also haven’t kept up with the times. For example, even though the vast majority of cable operators have transitioned from analog to digital, the FCC’s cable signal quality and signal leakage regulations are still designed for the analog era. Back in 2012, the Commission proposed to update these regulations. Unfortunately, that proposal sat on the shelf for half a decade. No more. In September, the Commission will vote on an Order to modernize our signal quality and signal leakage regulations for the digital world.

You can add the satellite industry to the list of sectors where technological change has outpaced changes in the Commission’s rules. Our current regulations covering non-geostationary-satellite orbit (NGSO), fixed-satellite service (FSS) systems were generally adopted in the early 2000s and reflect the satellite designs of that era. Given recent trends in the satellite industry and changes in satellite technology, the Commission began a review last year of the rules governing NGSO FSS operations to better accommodate this next generation of systems. These systems could expand broadband access, especially in the most rural and remote areas of our nation. And at this month’s meeting, the Commission will be voting to update and streamline several of our existing rules.

One area where we can least afford for our rules to be out-of-date is public safety. Here, one issue of particular concern to me has been the ability of Americans to reach 911 when using centralized communications systems, such as those that serve office buildings, schools, and hotels. I’ve often spoken about Hank Hunt’s advocacy for Kari’s Law. This is legislation named after his daughter, who died during a fatal attack in a hotel room. Kari’s daughter tried calling 911 repeatedly from that room. But she never reached help because the hotel phone required that she first dial nine. I’m encouraged that both chambers of Congress recently passed versions of Kari’s Law, which would help ensure that Americans can call 911 directly.

But there’s more that can be done to improve 911 calling in these environments. That’s why I have circulated a Notice of Inquiry that seeks information on why the 911 capabilities of these systems appear to be lagging. We want to ensure that emergency calls from these locations are routed to the appropriate 911 call center and include the precise location and routing information needed for the caller to be found quickly.

Of course, part of making sure our rules reflect the modern marketplace is accurately assessing current market conditions. Congress requires the FCC to issue an annual report on the status of competition in the mobile wireless industry and further requires the FCC to analyze “whether or not” effective competition exists. At our September meeting, the Commission will consider the 20th Mobile Wireless Competition Report. The Report covers a lot of ground, but the topline finding is that, for the first time since 2009, the Report would actually answer this question. Specifically, the report reviews a number of facts, trends, and characteristics that taken together indicate there is effective competition in the marketplace for mobile wireless services.

I also think that it is important that Commissioners are once again being provided with the opportunity to vote on this. From 2014 to 2016, Commissioners weren’t allowed to vote on Wireless Competition Reports. Instead, they were issued on delegated authority by the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. I objected at the time to bypassing Commissioners in this manner. Now, as part of our ongoing effort to bring more openness and transparency to the FCC, we are putting this year’s Report up for a public Commission vote.

In addition to changing market conditions, a big reason to modernize FCC rules is evidence that our rules are creating adverse impacts. Currently, all device manufacturers and wireless service providers, regardless of size, are required to file annual reports with the Commission detailing their efforts to make sure wireless handsets are compatible with hearing aid devices. Small and rural service providers, however, have repeatedly asked for relief from the burden of preparing these reports. In three weeks, we will vote on an item to seek comment on whether we can eliminate or streamline the requirement for small carriers, while continuing to preserve the benefits of collecting this information from industry.

The Commission will also revisit our rules for assigning certain toll free numbers. Specifically, we are seeking comment on using an auction to distribute currently unassigned toll free numbers that multiple, competing parties have expressed an interest in. Auctions could represent a more efficient and effective means of distribution because catchy numbers (for example, 1–833-LAWYER) would be provided to those that value them the most. Moreover, the funds raised by these auctions would help offset the cost of administering the toll free number system. At the same time, the FCC will seek comment on setting aside some new toll free numbers for health and safety uses by government and non-profit organizations.

And finally, we will be voting on an item from the Commission’s Enforcement Bureau. For law enforcement reasons, we are unable to discuss it publicly before our September 26 meeting.

It’s been a busy month already at the FCC. And whether we are collaborating with our federal partners to respond to hurricanes or working to modernize our rules so that we maximize the benefits of communications technology for all Americans, we will continue to work the rest of this month and every month to advance the public interest.

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