Behold the Ides of March

One of the annual rites in the communications sector is Cisco’s assessment of global mobile data traffic. It arrives each February with basically the same headline: The mobile revolution is going strong. This year’s report arrived on Tuesday, detailing hundreds of millions of new mobile connections in the past year and projecting billions more in the years ahead.

But there was an important new wrinkle to this year’s report. For the first time, it included a section on 5G, the next generation in wireless connectivity. That 5G section contained some good news for the United States: Namely, Cisco projects that in 2022, almost 10% of wireless connections in North America will be based on 5G, which is more than twice the projected rate for Asia. Cisco credits the U.S. government’s policy decisions for America’s leadership position. “The U.S. has made a good start in changing policies to support the deployment of 5G,” said a Cisco representative. “[A]s we look around the rest of the world, policy changes of the type we’ve seen here in the U.S. have not yet happened.”

In the global race to 5G, we’re in a good position coming out of the starting blocks because we’ve been forward-looking on both infrastructure and spectrum policy — key components of the FCC’s 5G FAST Plan, which I outlined last year.

This March, the FCC’s monthly meeting will lead off with an initiative to keep our country at the front of the global pack for wireless innovation. It will unleash new wireless services and technologies in frequencies above 95 GHz — what we’ve called the Spectrum Horizons. One notable feature of this spectrum is that it has traditionally not been seen as suited for wireless communications, given the physical properties of these extremely-high bands. Another is that we are talking about massive swaths of airwaves. Think gigahertz, not megahertz — or to put it another way, massive open roads, as opposed to a lane or two (that’s often filled with traffic).

I’m aiming to maximize the value of this public resource for consumers and innovators. Specifically, the order I have circulated would make a massive 21.2 gigahertz of spectrum above 95 GHz available for unlicensed use across four frequency bands. I’m also proposing to add a new experimental license type that would that would permit experimental use on any frequency from 95 GHz to 3 THz, with no limits on geography or technology. We currently don’t know precisely what types of applications and wireless services the laws of physics will permit in these bands. And that’s sort of the point: The history of wireless innovation is one of government creating space for broad thinking and entrepreneurs using that space to take us in unexpected directions. With this order, we’ll set up a big sandbox for engineers and technologists to work with — and we’ll then see what American ingenuity delivers.

In addition to spectrum north of 95 GHz, we’re also continuing to study ways to make more efficient use of spectrum in the 900 MHz range. Over 30 years ago, this band was designated for narrowband communications — think of things like two-way dispatch radios used by business, industrial, and land transportation licensees. Under my leadership, the FCC launched a fresh inquiry to explore new uses for this band. Based on what we’ve learned, I’m proposing to make a segment of the 900 MHz band available for broadband, which will improve the user experience. I’m also proposing to authorize a market-driven, voluntary exchange process that would allow existing licensees to agree on a plan for relocating incumbents and transitioning the band — smoothing out, in an economically and technically sound way, the transition from point A to point B. The NPRM would also seek public input on two other ways to carry out this transition — an overlay auction and an incentive auction — to ensure we have other tools available for repurposing this spectrum going forward.

The FCC’s spectrum agenda fits in with our top priority of closing the digital divide. Consistent with this priority, the recently adopted MOBILE NOW Act calls on the Commission to explore the partitioning or disaggregation of spectrum licenses and spectrum leasing as potential means to increase availability of advanced telecommunications services in rural areas and spectrum access by small carriers. Essentially, partitioning or disaggregation involves ways to let companies use spectrum in portions of a geographic area or use portions of spectrum in a geographic area (as opposed to having to license all the spectrum in the whole area covered by a license, which may be cost-prohibitive). Leasing involves, as you might guess, renting out a part of the airwaves covered by a license. To satisfy the MOBILE NOW statutory requirement, I’ve circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that seeks comment on possible changes to our partitioning, disaggregation, and spectrum leasing rules that could encourage more secondary market transactions and expand spectrum access in underserved rural areas.

Robust wireless coverage is important for many reasons, and none is more important than public safety. Last week, I spoke to a gathering of the nation’s leading experts on public safety and emergency operations. In my remarks, I spoke about the importance of identifying a wireless 911 caller’s vertical location in multi-story buildings — what is commonly known as “z-axis” accuracy (with x and y coordinates conveying your location in 2-dimensional space). This information is critical to enabling first responders to quickly locate those who need help and save their lives. (Think about how hard it would be to find a person in a 20-story apartment building or hotel if you didn’t know what floor they were on.) To better equip first responders to do their jobs, we’ll be voting on a proposal to establish a vertical, or z-axis, location accuracy metric of 3 meters. That means that first responders will know the floor in a multi-story building from which an individual is making a wireless 911 call. And as I mentioned last week, after taking feedback on this proposal, I’m optimistic that the Commission will be able to adopt final rules on this issue later this year.

On the media front, keen observers know that the FCC is in the midst of the 600 MHz band repack, in which hundreds of television stations are in the process of changing their transmission frequencies to make space for wireless services following our incentive auction. Last week, the Commission issued a public notice noting that the repack is ahead of schedule. But we still have much work ahead of us. For instance, last year Congress approved an additional $1 billion to cover broadcaster transition costs, and it expanded the list of entities eligible for reimbursement to include affected low-power TV stations, TV translators, and FM radio stations. Next month, the Commission will vote on a Report and Order which will establish rules for the disbursement of this funding.

Our March meeting will also feature the latest order to come out of our media modernization initiative. The Commission currently has a burdensome process for authorizing “satellite” television stations, which are full-power stations that generally retransmit some or all of the programming of another television station, known as the “parent” station. Satellite stations are critical to providing television service to many rural areas. The problem is that if any entity wants to assign or transfer a satellite station, it has to go through the time- and resource-consuming reauthorization process all over again. In other words, the station’s status as a “satellite” must be reauthorized. These burdens can discourage companies from seeking to keep satellite stations on the air. We proposed last year to change that, and public input we received indicates that we were on the right track. So the Commission will vote on whether to streamline this process while ensuring that the Commission and public still have adequate information to assess whether reauthorization serves the public interest.

For all I’ve talked about promoting next-generation services and applications, the Commission still grapples with issues as fundamental as making sure that basic telephone calls get completed. All Americans should have confidence that when friends or relatives want to call them, their phones will ring. But that’s not always the case in rural America. The Commission will therefore vote on establishing service quality standards for intermediate providers — that is, “middlemen” carriers that take the call from the originating carrier and send it toward the terminating carrier — to help ensure that any calls they handle actually reach their intended destination. As we transition to new rules, the order would also sunset our outdated call data recording and retention rules one year after these new service quality standards become effective.

Shakespeare’s soothsayer famously warned Caesar to “beware the ides of March.” But I’m looking forward to the 2019 iteration of that day. On March 15, we’ll aim to make progress on many of the issues core to the FCC’s mission: promoting U.S. leadership on 5G, closing the digital divide, advancing public safety, modernizing our media rules, helping rural consumers, and more. I hope that over the next few weeks, friends, Americans, countrymen, that you’ll lend the FCC your ears (and your eyes, as we’ll be publishing all of these draft orders and proposals tomorrow)!