Setting the Standard for Rural Connectivity
Two weeks ago, I ventured to North Dakota to kick off a road trip that wound through South Dakota, Nebraska, and, eventually, the greatest state in the Union — Kansas. This was just the latest of my many forays outside the beltway to learn first-hand about the challenges facing the people and places on the wrong side of the digital divide. This excursion was particularly memorable for me because it means that I’ve now been to all 48 states in the continental United States as Chairman. My biggest takeaway from these trips has been the inspiration I’ve drawn from meeting the men and women doing the hard work to bring digital opportunity to their communities. Time and again, they’ve reinforced the importance of closing the digital divide and making sure that every American can enjoy the benefits of the Internet age.
One way in which the FCC has been focusing on this is working to ensure that broadband networks — and the digital opportunity they bring — reach every American. But deploying broadband is more than just the physical connections between customers and service providers; it is also making sure that those networks are delivering the performance customers expect. So, we must also demand that these new digital connections are fast and responsive enough to support online applications. Rural Americans shouldn’t have to settle for second-rate service, and taxpayer support shouldn’t go toward shoddy service, either. That’s why the FCC sets performance standards for the recipients of universal service support, that is, if you get money from the FCC, you have to prove that you’re using that money to deliver digital opportunity. Over the past several months, the Commission has been reviewing our testing procedures for measuring whether carriers receiving support from our Connect America Fund high cost program are building networks that meet the performance standards we have set. On one hand, we want to make sure that subscribers are getting the quality of service that they have been promised and our rules require. On the other, we also want to make sure that our testing procedures don’t impose unnecessary burdens on small carriers located in hard-to-serve areas that often face unique challenges.
Today, I’m circulating an order addressing testing procedures and performance measures that strikes the right balance. This order, which we’ll vote on at our upcoming October 25 meeting, would maintain those requirements necessary to ensuring that carriers receiving universal service support are meeting our performance standards and providing subscribers the quality broadband service they deserve. But it would also give providers greater flexibility where it makes sense to do so. For example, it would change testing implementation dates so that they are now more closely aligned with when a carrier has its first mandatory build-out obligations. It would also create a pre-testing period that would allow carriers to ensure that their testing systems are performing correctly before testing begins. We expect that this added flexibility will reduce burdens on broadband providers without compromising the effectiveness of our testing regime. I hope that my colleagues will join me in supporting this order.
Speaking of not placing undue burdens on service providers, more than a decade ago, Congress passed a law prohibiting state, local, and Tribal governments from imposing higher 911 fees on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services than traditional telecommunications services. Nevertheless, we’ve seen litigation in Alabama and other states over whether VoIP business service subscribers can be charged higher 911 fees than subscribers to traditional telecommunications services. At our October meeting, the Commission will vote on a Declaratory Ruling clarifying that placing discriminatory fees on VoIP subscribers is prohibited and providing examples of fees that would be discriminatory and thus legally prohibited. This ruling would not only assure regulatory parity between VoIP and traditional telecommunications services, it would also encourage consumers and businesses to migrate to more advanced, IP-based services.
Just as the Commission’s rules should reflect how IP-based services have changed the marketplace for voice services, they should also acknowledge the ways they are revolutionizing the video marketplace. Under the Cable Act, the regulation of basic cable rates is only permitted in those areas where there is not effective competition in the video marketplace. And because of the vast changes in the video marketplace that have taken place over the last two or three decades, cable rate regulation in the United States is now limited to certain parts of Hawaii and Massachusetts.
Charter has asked the Commission to find that it is subject to effective competition in the Hawaii and Massachusetts communities that it serves. Specifically, it points to the over-the-top streaming service offered throughout the country by AT&T, which provides video programming bundles comparable to those provided by cable operators. In three weeks, the Commission will vote on an order that would agree Charter is now subject to effective competition from AT&T’s streaming service. Adopting this order would be a major step toward the Commission recognizing the realities of the modern video marketplace, and the increasingly important role that streaming services are playing in it.
Turning from outdated cable regulations to outdated broadcast regulations, during World War II, the Commission adopted regulations regarding the use of common antenna sites. This was a time when shortages of equipment and materials were a serious impediment to the introduction of new broadcast services. Today, however, this is obviously not the case. Moreover, the number of radio and television stations have increased substantially in the last 75 years as have the number of sites where broadcast antennas are located. As a result, there is now a serious question as to whether the Commission’s common antenna site regulations remain necessary. So at our October meeting, the Commission will be voting on a proposal to seek comment on whether we should revise these rules or eliminate them altogether.
Believe it or not, there’s an even older set of rules slated to be featured on the Commission’s October agenda. The FCC has rules governing tariff filings that go back more than 75 years when tariffs were often voluminous and filed exclusively in hard copy. This month, we will consider an order addressing two regulations that don’t make sense in an era when tariffs are filed and can be accessed electronically and lengthy review periods are no longer necessary. First, we would allow carriers to cross-reference their tariffs as well as those of their affiliates, ending a long-standing prohibition on this practice. Second, we would eliminate the requirement that price cap carriers file certain supporting information — known as “short-form tariff review plans” — 90 days before their annual interstate access charge filings are effective.
Rounding out our October agenda is an item to accelerate the conclusion of the Commission’s 800 MHz band reconfiguration program. This 14-year initiative has aimed to eliminate interference that once plagued first-responders operating in the band. With this re-banding effort nearing the finish line, I am proposing that we eliminate requirements that are no longer necessary and will only serve the purpose of delaying the end of this already lengthy process.
In closing, congratulations to all Nationals’ fans on Tuesday night’s come-from-behind victory. As someone who roots for Kansas City sports teams, I can certainly empathize with your suffering over the years. Just five years ago, the Royals had an improbable 8th-inning comeback of their own in a wild card game, and I’m glad so many of my friends and neighbors got to share that feeling of joy and long-overdue relief. Good luck against the Dodgers tonight and for the rest of the playoffs.