The Next Big Thing
Three weeks from tomorrow, the FCC will hold its official meeting for April 2019. Now, April 12 is significant for many reasons, but the one I find most fitting at the moment is that it’s country music legend Vince Gill’s birthday. I like a lot of his songs, but for agency purposes, I’d say “Next Big Thing” reflects well much of what we’ll be voting on a few weeks hence.
Take the refrain that “[e]verybody’s waiting for the next big thing.” That certainly seems to be the case with 5G. 5G is indeed the next big thing in wireless; it has transformative potential, including much faster speeds, much lower latency, much more capacity, and new services and applications, many of which nobody can even predict today.
We’re seeking to deliver on this potential in April by gearing up for an auction of the upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz spectrum bands. Before I get into the particulars, it’s worth noting that this would be our third major spectrum auction to take place in 2019. Earlier this year, the FCC successfully concluded bidding on the United States’ first auction of millimeter wave airwaves for 5G services, awarding nearly 3,000 licenses in the 28 GHz band. Just last week, we started the bidding in our second auction of millimeter wave spectrum, this time in the 24 GHz band. And with this public notice on auctions procedures, we take a significant step towards an auction of the upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz spectrum bands later this year.
The public notice makes proposals and asks questions about the essential features of this auction. For example, with respect to auction procedures, we’re seeking comment on plans for a new incentive auction, in which we propose to use an ascending clock auction format for the offered licenses and then hold a sealed-bid assignment phase. We also propose offering 100 megahertz blocks of spectrum licensed by Partial Economic Area service areas. In combination, the upper 37 GHz and the 39 GHz bands would offer the largest amount of contiguous spectrum in the millimeter wave bands for flexible-use wireless services — a total of 2,400 megahertz. And the 47 GHz band, no slouch itself, will provide an additional 1,000 megahertz of millimeter wave spectrum for such services. Combined with the two preceding auctions, the Commission will be making available almost five gigahertz of spectrum for commercial use this year.
On a related but separate note, I’ve also circulated a proposal that we’ll vote on at our April meeting that would facilitate next-generation wireless services in the 37 GHz band. This proposal would finalize arrangements for the upper 37 GHz band by establishing a process for the U.S. Department of Defense to operate there on a shared basis in limited circumstances. (I want to take this opportunity to thank our counterparts at the Pentagon for their cooperation. The issues involved are quite complex, and I appreciate their working in good faith to reach a mutually agreeable resolution of them.) This proposal would also establish rules authorizing Fixed-Satellite Service operators, such as satellite broadband service operators, to license individual earth stations in the 50 GHz band.
This isn’t all we’ll be doing on the wireless front. As the FCC’s 5G FAST Plan makes clear, U.S. leadership in 5G depends not only on spectrum, but also infrastructure. Here, too, the FCC’s April meeting will give us a chance to make progress. We currently have rules on the books that prohibit state and local restrictions that unreasonably impair the ability of users to deploy what are called “over-the-air reception devices.” But these rules were developed a long time ago. They had in mind the delivery of video services, not broadband. So they don’t apply to antennas operating as hub or relay antennas used to transmit signals to or receive signals from multiple customer locations — in short, the kind of equipment that could be used for innovative new wireless services. On April 12, the FCC will vote on a proposal to update these rules. We’ll aim to pave the way for next-generation networking technologies that operate over millimeter waves, specifically, things like the base stations and hubs that make up mesh networks — modern-day over-the-air reception devices, so to speak.
The rest of the FCC’s April meeting will feature a series of measures to modernize or eliminate outdated rules. I’d like to think we’ll draw inspiration from Gill’s “Next Big Thing,” which as you know begins “Things have changed in the modern world. It makes it kinda crazy for a boy and girl.” Well, that goes for the Code of Federal Regulations, too, so we’re poised to get rid of some kinda crazy rules.
The first and foremost of these is the so-called “rate floor.” Here’s the background. In 2011, the FCC required certain rural carriers that receive federal subsidies (universal service support) to impose minimum monthly rates for telephone service. This minimum was called the rate floor. Among other problems with this so-called rate floor, it forced many rural customers to pay higher rates than some of their urban counterparts, without any corresponding federal benefit. This policy disproportionately hurts seniors and low-income households that can least afford to pay inflated bills. I’ve spoken for years against the rate floor, pointing out that it perversely raises rates on consumers who tend to have lower incomes. For years, we’ve kicked the can down the road with piecemeal delays in the rate floor. Now, if we don’t take action soon, many rural Americans’ rates will go up by almost 50% in July. In three weeks, we’ll vote on squashing the can and ending this counterproductive regulation once and for all. A diverse coalition of organizations, ranging from AARP to the National Tribal Telecommunications Association, supports eliminating the rate floor, and I hope that the Commission will vote in April to get rid of it.
This isn’t the only outmoded idea we’ll target. For another, imagine physically going to the offices of your local cable operator to get a current listing of the cable television channels it offers. Obviously, the very notion is ridiculous, which is why it’s equally preposterous that the FCC still has rules requiring cable companies to keep such listings in such offices in hardcopy. Recognizing that this information about the channel lineups is now available through other sources, the Commission will be voting to eliminate this requirement. If approved, this would be the 12th order eliminating or updating obsolete rules and processes through the Commission’s Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative.
We’ll also tackle several obsolete phone company regulations at our April meeting. These requirements were first established more than two decades ago — in an era when the “Baby Bell” companies and other incumbent carriers had monopolies in the local telephone market and were looking to enter the long-distance market. The communications marketplace has completely transformed since then, and these regulations have outlived their usefulness. So I’m circulating an order that would address portions of a petition filed by USTelecom for forbearance relief from these requirements (the Commission will resolve the rest of that petition at a later date). Specifically, the order would forbear from the burdensome rule that smaller, rural incumbent carriers offer long-distance telephone service through a separate affiliate. The order would also relieve incumbent carriers from the obligation to submit unnecessary reports about their legacy “special access” services and from a duplicative statutory provision regarding access to telephone poles. Without this regulatory overhang and the compliance burden that goes along with it, carriers can instead focus their resources on delivering next-generation services — in other words, the “Next Big Thing” — to American consumers.
You’ve read this far, for which I’m grateful. But I don’t want to push it. For as “Next Big Thing” warned us, “[f]or a little while, you can do no wrong; live it up, son, ’cause it don’t last long.” I’m looking forward to April 12, when the FCC will keep delivering results for the American people. And maybe we’ll toast Vince, too.