When Opportunity Knocks
As is often the case, the current pop culture landscape in the United States is being dominated by sequels. “Toy Story 4” and the latest Spider-Man movie are lapping the field at the box office. The third edition of “Stranger Things” was streamed by a record 41 million Netflix subscribers in the first four days since its release on July 4. An abundance of sequels is nothing new. What’s extraordinary about this moment is that these follow-ups are being almost universally recognized by critics and audiences as being really, really good.
In this season of better-than-ever revivals, the FCC is introducing at its upcoming August 1 meeting a new-and-improved sequel of its own: the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
If the FCC were a movie studio, its tentpole franchise would be its universal service programs. Across multiple decades and many iterations, the Commission has operated programs that have invested billions of dollars so that millions of unserved Americans can access phone and, more recently, Internet (a hat tip to former Chairman Genachowski there) services. This April, I joined the President at a White House event, where I announced my plans to create the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a modernized approach for connecting the hardest-to-serve corners of our country. Today, I’m circulating a proposal to formally establish this program. If adopted, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will mark the Commission’s single biggest step yet to close the rural digital divide and will connect millions more rural homes and small businesses to high-speed broadband networks.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would build on the success of the Connect America Fund Phase II reverse auction. Thanks to our reforms, the latter program will connect over 700,000 unserved rural homes and businesses with high-speed broadband for just 30% of our projected cost to reach these areas. And over 99.5% of these locations will have access to at least 25 Mbps broadband, with many homes and businesses receiving gigabit connections.
Under my proposal, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would take a similar approach in providing $20.4 billion over the next decade to support high-speed broadband networks in rural America. In particular, I’m proposing to disburse support in two phases using a multi-round, descending-clock reverse auction. This will ensure that the most unserved Americans will be covered for the lowest cost possible. Phase I would target those areas that we already know are wholly unserved. Then, Phase II would target (1) any areas not won in the first phase and (2) those areas that are partially served once the Commission has more granular information about which areas are already served (that is, we’ll target unserved households in a census block that is otherwise served, sort of like filling in the white spaces of a picture). My proposal would increase the minimum speed from 10/1 Mbps in the last auction to 25/3 Mbps, and it would favor faster services with lower latency, like gigabit Internet access. My proposal would also open the auction to all types of Internet service providers, such as rural telephone companies, small cable providers, fixed wireless companies, and electric cooperatives.
One of the long-term improvements of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will be better targeting to make sure investments go to areas where the need is the greatest. That brings me to the next item on our August agenda. When it comes to understanding where broadband is available and where it isn’t, the FCC’s primary data source, known as Form 477, lets us see which census blocks have broadband coverage. But just because some homes and businesses in a census block have access to broadband doesn’t mean all of them do. That’s why I launched a proceeding during my first year as Chairman to find ways to collect more granular data about where broadband is deployed. And that’s why today, I’m proposing the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, an all-new approach to mapping that will collect granular broadband availability maps from service providers using shapefiles. But we won’t just be taking their word for it: I’m also proposing that we verify those maps through crowdsourcing — feedback directly from the public. If a provider can’t provide the service shown on its map, you’ll be able to tell us directly. This process will let us better target our scarce universal service funds where they are needed most.
Our August agenda will feature a third item aimed at closing the digital divide in rural America and ensuring that we’re stretching universal service dollars as far as possible. The FCC’s Rural Health Care program provides financial support to help rural health care providers obtain communications services at discounted rates for telehealth services — services that benefit patients living in and around these rural communities. The Commission will be voting on a package of much-needed changes to this program. The most significant of these changes is to the way we calculate the rates that health care providers must pay and the amount of support they will receive. Right now, it is difficult for health care providers to determine these amounts — and for the Fund Administrator to verify them. As a result, the assessment, distribution, and receipt of support can be slow and uncertain, which ultimately disserves the patients who could benefit from telehealth services. The changes that we will vote on will promote transparency and predictability for health care providers and service providers alike and will help ensure that rural patients continue to receive the care they need.
I know I focused on sequels earlier, but our August meeting has already included previews.
On Monday, I kicked off the week by announcing that the Commission is moving forward with new rules banning malicious caller ID spoofing of text messages and international phone calls. Using new authority given to us by Congress last year, we’ll close this loophole and make it harder for international scam artists to deceive U.S. consumers and evade law enforcement. A bipartisan group of more than 40 state attorneys general have urged us to take this step as part of our multi-pronged approach to combatting spoofed robocalls. This is the latest step we’ll take in addressing our top consumer protection priority.
On Tuesday, I delivered remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where I rolled out a draft order that would make it easier and cheaper to license small satellites. The proposed new regulatory process would enable small satellite applicants to choose a streamlined alternative to existing licensing procedures. We’re talking about an easier application process, a lower application fee, and a shorter timeline for review. In addition, it would offer potential radiofrequency interference protection for critical communication links, reduce the risk of orbital debris, and promote efficient use of spectrum. This will encourage growing innovation in space technologies and ensure that America continues to be the best place in the world to license and launch new satellites.
And that same day, I issued a statement announcing that the Commission is moving forward with rules to make it easier to reach 911 from hotels, office buildings, and other places that use so-called multi-line telephone systems. This package will implement Congressional mandates from the Kari’s Law Act of 2017 and RAY BAUM’S Act of 2018. Our reforms would allow hotel guests and others to call 911 directly without using a prefix, and also would establish dispatchable location requirements (like a specific address or suite number) so that first responders can reach people in need.
Rounding out our August agenda are three more items.
The first is a vote to adopt procedures for the auction of more than 17,000 toll-free numbers using the 833 prefix. This first-of-its-kind auction will be conducted in December. It’ll serve as an experiment in using competitive bidding as a way to assign toll-free numbers equitably and efficiently.
The second would update our technical rules for Low-Power FM (LPFM) stations. When the Commission launched the LPFM service in 2000, it designed the LPFM engineering requirements to be simple. The purpose was to make it easier for non-profit organizations with limited engineering expertise and small budgets to readily apply for, construct, and operate community-oriented stations serving highly localized areas. There are now over 2,100 LPFM stations, and LPFM organizations suggest that the service has matured and requires additional engineering options to improve reception. That’s why I’m proposing reforms such as allowing expanded LPFM use of directional antennas and permitting LPFM use of FM booster stations. This Notice of Proposed Rulemaking includes additional changes to increase flexibility while maintaining interference protection and the core LPFM values of diversity and localism.
The third focuses on how local franchising authorities may regulate cable operators. This Report and Order would faithfully implement the requirements of the Communications Act. It would prevent local authorities from unlawfully evading the five percent statutory cap on franchise fees. And it would also make clear that the Act does not allow franchising authorities to regulate most non-cable services offered by cable operators over their cable systems. Excessive fees and inappropriate regulations imposed by local governments deter broadband deployment and discourage investment in next-generation facilities and services. In short, we will be voting at the August meeting on common-sense rules that will enforce the legal framework Congress adopted decades ago and will help expedite the construction of next-generation networks.
Like a modern multi-screen cineplex, the FCC’s August meeting features so many varied offerings it can be hard to keep track. You’ve got multiple items to close the digital divide, new rules to curtail unwanted robocalls, a public safety proposal, an item to unleash satellite communications, updates to our radio and cable regulations, and rules for the first-ever auction of toll-free numbers. I hope every one of these offerings will be a big hit.