Closing Digital Divides, Boosting Broadcasting, and Reducing Regulatory Burdens

I’ve had the honor of serving as the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission since January 23. By law, the FCC is required to hold at least one public meeting each month at which it votes on an agenda set by the agency’s Chairman. And so it is that, for the first time, I have the privilege to set the agenda for the FCC’s upcoming February 2017 meeting.

Today also happens to be Groundhog Day. Fittingly, this month’s robust docket features two priorities I’ve touted on a perpetual loop since becoming Chairman: closing the digital divide and removing unnecessary regulations. As an added tribute to the legendary weatherman Phil Connors of WPBH-Pittsburgh, the Commission is also moving forward with two actions to boost U.S. broadcasting.

Closing the Digital Divide. — I’ve talked a lot about the need to promote digital empowerment: to enable any American who wants high-speed Internet access, or broadband, to get it. To further that purpose, the Commission will consider two separate orders to spur the buildout of mobile and fixed broadband networks in rural America.

Here’s the background on the first one, known in the parlance as the “Mobility Fund.” Right now, the federal government spends about $25 million of taxpayer money each month to subsidize wireless carriers in areas where private capital has been spent building out networks. This is perhaps a textbook definition of waste: public funds being spent to do what the private sector has already done.

Three weeks from now, we will vote on redirecting that spending to something far more useful: bringing 4G LTE service to rural Americans who don’t have it today. I am proposing to couple our detailed coverage data with a robust challenge process to identify the areas most in need of service. And I propose using a competitive “reverse auction” to allocate this support to preserve and extend 4G LTE coverage throughout our nation.

But that’s not all. With respect to the second order, the Commission will also vote to finalize the rules for allocating nearly $2 billion from the Connect America Fund, which aims to advance broadband service across the country. Here again, we will direct financial support to deploy fixed broadband in unserved rural areas using a competitive reverse auction. My aim is to get the best deal for the American people with the universal service dollars we have available.

Boosting American Broadcasting. — Next on the agenda will be two ideas designed to help broadcasters provide better service.

The first involves letting the broadcast business innovate and fully enter the digital era. Engineers in the broadcast industry have been feverishly at work developing a new transmission standard that would let broadcasters merge the capabilities of over-the-air broadcasting with broadband connectivity. This Next Gen TV standard, also known as ATSC 3.0, is the first one to leverage the power of the Internet, and it promises to dramatically transform broadcasting. To name a few advances, it would enable ultra-HD video. It would enable more localized information — functionality especially useful during a public safety emergency. And it would allow consumers to easily watch over-the-air programming on their mobile devices.

Before broadcasters can roll out these new services, the FCC must first authorize use of the Next Gen TV standard. In three weeks, the Commission will vote to begin the process of permitting broadcasters to do so on a voluntary basis. I hope that we can issue a final approval of the standard later this year.

The second Commission item involves the longstanding medium of radio. The FCC is fully committed to giving radio broadcasters a chance to thrive. And this month, we will have an opportunity to build on our successful efforts to revitalize AM radio. Over 1,000 AM stations have taken advantage of recent FCC reforms by obtaining FM translators to grow their audience. At the same time, we have heard from broadcasters that the FCC’s rules make finding a location for these translators unnecessarily challenging. The proposal before the Commission would therefore offer greater flexibility to AM stations in siting their translators. It’s a simple step, but one that would help AM broadcasters build a stronger bridge to the future.

Removing Unnecessary Regulations. — Closing out our agenda will be two items eliminating unnecessary and burdensome rules.

Regulatory mandates have a disproportionate effect on small businesses. Accordingly, I’ve proposed reinstating an exemption for small Internet service providers from enhanced reporting requirements contained in the Title II Order. These rules impose unnecessary burdens on small businesses, many of which are critical to increasing competition in the broadband marketplace. The Commission will be voting on an order that extends this exemption for an additional five years — an order directly modeled on bipartisan legislation recently adopted in the House and introduced in the Senate.

The Commission will also consider how to minimize the compliance burdens created by the Commission’s arcane accounting rules for one segment of the telecommunications market. These rules are onerous, complicated, often as needless as a conversation with Ned Ryerson. By simplifying them, we will enable companies to stop investing in paperwork and focus on expanding and upgrading their networks.

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I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners on this aggressive agenda to connect Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide, to allow broadcasters to innovate and better serve viewers, and to reduce unnecessary regulations. And Groundhog Day or not, you can expect that I will return to these themes over and over and over again.