Winning the Wireless Future
Earlier this week, I was in Barcelona for the mobile industry’s largest global showcase. The possibilities of our wireless future were on full display, with 5G — the next generation of wireless service — the hot topic. The race to 5G is a global one, with countries in Asia and Europe particularly keen to seize the advantage. In a speech, I made clear that I want the United States to win that race. I outlined the FCC’s strategy for 5G leadership and delivering next-generation wireless connectivity to American consumers using a three-part approach: forward-thinking spectrum policy, modernized rules for infrastructure deployment, and light-touch network regulation.
This week, we’re putting that strategy to work, rolling out multiple actions to advance this agenda.
On Monday in Barcelona, I announced my plan for the FCC to hold an auction starting this November of spectrum in the 28 GHz band. We’ll follow up immediately thereafter with an auction of spectrum in the 24 GHz band. This high-band spectrum will be critical to the rollout of 5G, because it will enable extremely fast connections with more capacity. There’s no telling how innovators might use this spectrum — it could be high-bandwidth applications like virtual reality and/or low-bandwidth ones like industrial Internet-of-Things monitoring — but experience teaches us that consumers ultimately will be big winners.
On Tuesday, we unveiled a map of the initial areas eligible for federal subsidies from the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II. As you might remember, last year, we rolled out a plan to devote up to $4.53 billion over the next decade to bring 4G LTE service to areas of the country that don’t yet have it. The new map begins the process of determining which specific areas those are. It’s an important step toward holding the MF II reverse auction, in which we’ll allocate that money.
And today, I’m unveiling a lineup for the FCC’s March 22 open meeting that builds on this momentum.
Headlining the meeting will be a vital part of our 5G strategy: modernizing our rules to promote the wireless infrastructure of the future. One thing we know about 5G wireless networks is that they’ll be infrastructure-intensive. Instead of a 200-foot cell tower, we’ll see hundreds of small cells, installed more inconspicuously, operating at lower power, and delivering much faster speeds. Some analysts project that 5G will involve a 100-fold increase in the number of small cells deployed in the United States. But there’s a snag: many of the FCC’s rules are still designed for cell towers. The hoops set up by these regulations are a mismatch for 5G infrastructure and are holding back the construction of next-generation networks.
That’s why I asked my colleague, Commissioner Brendan Carr, to lead the FCC’s effort to modernize our wireless infrastructure rules. Thanks to his efforts, we’ll be voting on an order at our March meeting that would do just that. Most importantly, it would find that the private sector’s deployment of certain small wireless facilities shouldn’t trigger federal historic preservation and environmental reviews. Red tape like this is not only unnecessary for small cells, but also increases the cost and slows down the deployment of wireless networks.
To circle back to the theme I opened with, it was clear in Barcelona that countries around the world are striving to lead the world in 5G. We’ve led the world in wireless for some time now, but it’s not a given that we’ll do so again. If the United States is going to be at the front of the pack in 5G, we need to have the right rules in place to expedite the deployment of 5G networks. All the 5G spectrum we free up won’t matter if the networks to carry wireless traffic don’t exist. And so, as Commissioner Carr has put it, we need to be 5G Ready. This makes the March 22 vote to update our wireless infrastructure rules very important.
One specific area where we are seeking to spur effective use of spectrum and leverage wireless technologies is the 4.9 GHz band. Way back in 2002, the FCC designated 50 MHz of contiguous spectrum in that band for public safety use. Unfortunately, this spectrum has never been used as much as had been hoped. So a few years ago, the FCC explored ways to stimulate expanded use of and investment in this band. Based on the feedback we received from the public safety community, we’ve developed new proposals to promote greater public safety use of the 4.9 GHz band and incentivize investment in new technologies. The FCC will be voting on these proposals at our March meeting.
We’ll also vote on a second public safety matter at our March meeting. This one tackles the important issue of “misrouted” 911 calls from wireless phones. Every 911 call center I visit these days — and I’ve visited many, in big cities and small towns — reports that a strong majority of the emergency calls they get come from wireless phones. Currently, wireless 911 calls are routed to 911 call centers based on the location of the tower that handles the call. But when calls are made near a county or city border, the nearest cell tower may be in a neighboring jurisdiction, so you end up with 911 calls being answered by emergency call-takers who have to transfer the call to first responders in another jurisdiction.
The scope of this problem became apparent to me during a recent visit to the Washington, DC Office of Unified Communications (OUC). There, Director Karima Holmes told me the OUC received about 10,000 misrouted 911 calls last year, which had to be transferred to Maryland authorities (and many thousands of calls received in Maryland were transferred into the District). Every second counts in an emergency, so these delays can have a huge impact. The good news is that technology now can help route calls to the correct call center without the need for a transfer. I’m therefore asking my fellow commissioners to join me in launching an inquiry to figure out how widespread a problem this is and how we can ensure that 911 calls are routed based on the location of the caller as opposed to the location of the cell tower that handles that call.
Overly restrictive regulations not only stifle the private sector; they also ultimately hurt consumers. That’s been the case with signal boosters, which are basically devices that improve wireless coverage by amplifying wireless signals. To be sure, the FCC’s 2013 rules authorizing the use of signal boosters have been a net positive for consumers by allowing them to get better coverage in areas where signals are weak, such as in their basement or on their commute through rural areas. But the current rules unnecessarily restrict these boosters to personal use, preventing small businesses and other organizations from taking advantage of these devices. Given credible evidence that boosters will not cause interference under existing safeguards, the FCC will vote on March 22 on eliminating the personal use restriction and allowing boosters to be used in business settings for the benefit of employees or the general public. In addition, the FCC will seek public input on ways to increase the availability of signal boosters. Proposals we’re considering include expanding the spectrum bands in which boosters may operate and making it easier to embed boosters in vehicles. Our goal is pretty simple: to give consumers who want better wireless coverage more options for getting it.
As we’re unleashing the benefits of communications technologies, we also want to minimize the downsides. And judging from consumers’ complaints to the FCC, the biggest frustration related to modern communications is unwanted robocalls. The Commission has engaged in an aggressive, multi-front battle against these constant irritants, and one of the fronts in this war is the issue of unwanted calls to reassigned numbers. When you disconnect your phone number and get a new one, you probably don’t notify everyone who has called you in the past, including businesses (like pharmacies or electric utilities) to whom you’ve given permission to call. So when your old phone number is reassigned to someone else, the new subscriber starts getting calls that were meant for you. This not only annoys the new number-holder, but can also subject the callers to liability. At this month’s open meeting, the FCC will vote on finding ways to tackle this reassigned numbers problem. Among other ideas, we’ll explore the creation of a single database that callers could use to check and see if phone numbers have been reassigned.
The last item on our March agenda will be the latest reform to come out of our media modernization initiative. When broadcast television entities come to the FCC hoping to assign or transfer a satellite station in the context of a transaction, that station’s status as a “satellite” must be reauthorized. Such reauthorization traditionally requires the broadcast entity to make the same rigorous showing that was required initially when the station was formally designated a satellite by the Commission. Some folks have argued that requiring the same evidentiary showing for a reauthorization request is unnecessarily costly and burdensome in many cases, both for the applicants and the Commission; everyone knows the duck still quacks like a duck, so to speak, so the current process is wasteful. In three weeks, we’ll vote on a proposal to streamline the process for reauthorizing satellite stations when they are assigned or transferred.
But returning to where I started, the main focus of our March meeting will be on wireless issues. Whether we’re ensuring that America can lead the world in 5G, allowing for more productive use of spectrum for public safety, or giving consumers better wireless coverage, our goal is to maximize the benefits of wireless technologies for the American people.