The Need for Speed
If it weren’t for COVID-19, the Top Gun sequel would be in theaters right now. Nonetheless, you can rest assured that we’ll all be mavericks in three weeks. That’s because when it comes to our August meeting’s main attraction, repurposing C-band spectrum for 5G, we feel the need — the need for speed.
For some time now, the FCC has been aggressively executing the 5G FAST Plan — a comprehensive strategy for advancing American leadership in 5G. We want to ensure the United States is the first-mover in 5G innovation so we can attract the innovation, investment, talent, and other benefits that come with global leadership (or as Slider more colloquially said in Top Gun, “Remember boys, no points for second place”). Along these lines, one of the Commission’s most significant actions to date was our decision to clear the lower 280 megahertz of the C-band (3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz) and make this spectrum available for 5G. This was the Commission’s biggest move ever to reallocate mid-band spectrum, which is particularly appealing for 5G because it combines good geographic coverage with good capacity.
When we crafted our rules for repurposing the C-band, we prioritized making this spectrum available for 5G as quickly as possible. That’s why we rejected calls to do literally nothing until Congress passed a law on the subject (breaking news: it still hasn’t). That’s why we included accelerated relocation payments to incumbent satellite operators that will make spectrum available for 5G two to four years earlier than otherwise would have been the case. And that’s why we proposed an aggressive schedule for holding an auction within the calendar year. Even though the Commission effectively shut down our headquarters less than a month after we adopted the C-band Order, we’re fully on track and sticking to the schedule. Today, I circulated final draft procedures for a C-band auction to be held on December 8, 2020, and we will vote on them at our August meeting. They spell out the many details of the auction — competitive bidding procedures, application requirements, and deadlines governing participation in Auction 107. To spur the deployment of ultra-fast, world-leading 5G networks, we need to make C-band spectrum (among other spectrum bands) available as quickly as possible. If the Commission adopts this plan to launch this auction in December, barely nine months after adopting rules, that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.
From the sprint of C-band to the marathon of our Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative we go. This August, the Commission will be taking two more steps along the road to update our media rules.
In 1964, the FCC first adopted rules to restrict the duplication of programming on commonly-owned broadcast radio stations operating in the same geographic area. We’ve revised them several times throughout the decades in response to changing market conditions. The current version of the rule was adopted in 1992. Going on three decades later, the rules are overdue for a revision. So the Commission will be voting on an order to eliminate the radio duplication rule as it pertains to AM stations, but retain its application to FM stations. The record indicates that the realities of the marketplace and technical challenges faced by AM broadcasters suggest the rule should be eliminated with respect to that service. This approach will afford AM broadcast licensees greater flexibility, facilitate all-digital broadcasting by AM stations, and ultimately allow stations to improve service to their communities.
The second media modernization item on our August agenda goes all the way back to rules adopted during World War II. Back then, the Commission froze the construction of new broadcast facilities in order to preserve equipment and materials (or materiel, if you’re so inclined) for the war effort. At the same time, the Commission adopted rules requiring existing broadcast licensees to share their facilities in certain situations. To our knowledge, there has never been a case where all the criteria necessary to invoke the rules were successfully met. And given the significant broadcast infrastructure deployment since then, and the fact most towers are now owned by independent companies that lease tower space to broadcasters, these rules no longer serve any practical purpose. In fact, we didn’t receive a single comment in the record from any broadcast licensees that would most directly be affected by repealing these antenna siting rules. Hence, an upcoming vote in August to eliminate them.
The Commission’s outdated rules are hardly limited to media. This August, we will also be looking to eliminate some obsolete rules for telecommunications relay services (TRS), which are services that enable those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deafblind, or have speech disabilities to communicate. The FCC is required by law to make sure that TRS is functionally equivalent to voice services. To that end, we adopted our “equal access” rule, which guarantees that TRS users shall have access to their chosen interexchange carrier, and a “billing options” requirement, which makes sure TRS customers can be billed for long-distance, operator-assisted, and collect calls like wireline voice users. But with current technology and prevailing offerings in the voice communications market, the “equal access” and “billing options” rules are now obsolete, and the Commission will vote in August on eliminating them. Among other things, taking this step would relieve TRS providers of the need to maintain antiquated features of circuit-switched networks at a time when they and others within the communications industry have been transitioning to IP-based platforms. We’ll also vote on getting rid of the provision requiring Federal Register publication of requests for comment on state TRS program certification applications, which would improve the efficiency of the Commission’s TRS certification process and conserve administrative resources (and save a few trees while we’re at it).
Rounding out our August agenda will be an item to reform the rates and charges that inmates pay for telephone service. Access to affordable telecommunications services is critical for all Americans, especially incarcerated members of our society. Inmates who have regular contact with family are more likely to succeed after release and have lower recidivism rates. Yet, unlike virtually every other American, inmates and the people they call generally have no choice in their telephone service provider. Instead, their only option is typically an inmate calling services provider that, once chosen by that correctional facility, operates as a monopolist. Not surprisingly, without effective regulation, rates for inmate calling services can be unjustly and unreasonably high and make it difficult for inmates and their loved ones to stay connected.
The D.C. Circuit has twice rejected and remanded the FCC’s past efforts to address rates and charges for inmate calling services. In this item, we would follow the law and the facts to respond to the court’s directives and comprehensively reform these rates and charges. First, we will vote on an order that responds to the court’s remand on ancillary service charges — these are separate fees that aren’t included in the per-minute rates that inmate calling services providers charge for individual calls. While the details are weedy, here’s the upshot: Because, as a practical matter, these charges generally can’t be separated between interstate and intrastate calls, inmate calling services providers would generally be subject to the FCC’s rules when it comes to ancillary service charges — including our fee caps and our limits on the types of charges allowed. Second, we will vote to propose lowering our existing caps for interstate calls — from $0.21 for debit and prepaid calls and $0.25 for collect calls to $0.14 per minute for debit, prepaid, and collect calls from prisons and $0.16 per minute for debit, prepaid, and collect calls from jails. We make this proposal based on extensive FCC staff analysis of the most recent cost data submitted by inmate calling services providers. And we use a methodology that addresses the flaws underlying the Commission’s 2015 and 2016 rates caps and that is consistent with the Communications Act. Our proposal would also cap rates for international inmate calling services for the first time. And while the Commission votes on taking these steps, I also urge our state partners to take action to address the egregiously high intrastate inmate calling services rates across the country, rates that the D.C. Circuit ruled the Commission has no authority to cap.
Yet again, our August agenda demonstrates that the FCC staff will not allow their work to be significantly slowed down by the pandemic. I am grateful for their talent and determination. To my remarkable colleagues, I say, “you can be my wingman any time.”