An Energetic November
During the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, a pseudonymous Alexander Hamilton famously wrote that “[e]nergy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” Of course, Hamilton didn’t anticipate independent agencies like the FCC, but I’d like to think he would appreciate our regulatory hamlet taking his dictum to heart.
We’ve been energetic in advancing the public interest. For instance, over the past nine months, the Commission has voted on 63 items at our monthly meetings, compared to 103 in the preceding three years. And we’ve been nimble when needed, taking action within days to extend $77 million in up-front funding to companies eager to rebuild communications networks in Puerto Rico.
Our November open meeting, too, hews to a Hamiltonian track. We’ll be tackling top priorities: curtailing unlawful robocalls, unleashing 5G wireless connectivity, enabling the next generation of broadcast television, speeding infrastructure deployment, and modernizing our media ownership rules.
Topping our November meeting will be an order to crack down on unlawful robocalls. Right now, many unwanted robocalls are spoofed — that is, the caller ID is faked, hiding the caller’s true identity. Spoofed robocalls are often used by fraudsters to lure consumers into scams and avoid detection. In three weeks, however, the Commission will be voting on an order that would empower carriers to combat spoofed robocalls. Specifically, carriers would be allowed to block calls that purport to come from invalid or unassigned phone numbers. There is no valid reason why a legitimate caller should spoof his caller ID so that a call appears to come from an invalid or unassigned phone number (e.g., 000–000–0000). As part of this order, we will also vote on a rule that would allow carriers to block calls purporting to be from a phone number when the subscriber to that number requests that those calls be blocked. Such “Do-Not-Originate” requests can allow an individual, company, or government organization to prevent its phone number from being spoofed by robocallers. The scourge of unlawful robocalls is technically complex to address, and no single action will get the job done. But this order is part of the FCC’s multi-prong strategy for doing it, and it will be a significant step towards winning the fight.
2. 5G Spectrum
Another top Commission priority is unleashing more spectrum to spur the rollout of next-generation 5G wireless networks. To that end, the Commission will vote on an order that would make available another 1,700 megahertz of high-frequency spectrum for flexible terrestrial wireless use while providing 4 gigahertz for core satellite use. This decision would build on the 11 gigahertz of spectrum that we made available for flexible terrestrial wireless use last year and would be a major marker in the United States’ efforts to lead the world in 5G innovation.
3. Wireless Infrastructure
Another FCC priority has been to make it easier to build communications infrastructure. We’ll address that too in November. On the wireless side, we will vote on an order eliminating the requirement for historic preservation review where utility poles are replaced with substantially identical poles that can support antennas or other wireless communications equipment. This would eliminate unnecessary red tape and accelerate the buildout of wireless networks throughout our nation. If you’re simply replacing one pole with another, you shouldn’t have to jump through regulatory hoops that slow deployment down.
4. Wired Infrastructure
On the wired side, we’ll vote on expediting the transition from legacy copper networks to modern fiber networks. Every dollar spent to maintain the fading copper networks of yesterday by definition is a dollar that can’t be spent on building next-generation networks — networks that are critical to bridging the digital divide. So, in three weeks, we’ll vote on several common-sense measures that would make it easier for providers to modernize their networks.
Speaking of bridging the digital divide, the Lifeline program is an important component of the Commission’s efforts to bring digital opportunity to low-income Americans. But when I testified on Capitol Hill last month, I heard loud and clear from Democratic and Republican Senators alike that the program is in need of serious reform. For starters, we need to crack down on waste, fraud, and abuse. And we will. For instance, right now, Lifeline recipients in cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Reno, Nevada receive an enhanced Tribal subsidy, intended for rural Tribal lands, of $34.25 a month, while those in other cities receive the standard $9.25 subsidy. Giving residents of Tulsa and Reno an extra $25 per month subsidy is a waste of money given that the cost of providing service in those cities is far lower there than it is in poorer, rural areas. Therefore, at our November meeting, the Commission will aim to close this loophole and limit the enhanced Tribal subsidy to those actually living on Tribal lands in rural areas.
We’ll also vote to solicit public input on how to effectively and efficiently direct Lifeline funds to the areas where they are most needed, and to do so consistent with the FCC’s legal authority. And we’ll give Lifeline recipients better service and more choices — such as by eliminating a current prohibition on Lifeline broadband beneficiaries changing service providers for an entire year.
6. Media Ownership
Additionally, at our November meeting, we will be voting on modernizing our media ownership rules to reflect the marketplace of the present, not the past. Today’s media marketplace is nothing like it was in 1975, when one of our key cross-ownership rules was adopted. Newspapers are shutting down. Many radio and TV stations are struggling, especially in smaller markets. Competition for the collection and distribution of news is greater than ever with the emergence of cable news outlets and, most notably, the Internet. Today, just two Internet companies claim 100% of recent online advertising growth. Indeed, their digital ad revenue this year alone will be greater than the market cap of every broadcasting company in the United States combined. And yet the FCC’s rules still presume that the market is defined entirely by pulp and rabbit ears. In 2003, The New York Times declared, “[m]aking the argument that the current rules are outdated is easy.” In 2013, President Clinton’s first FCC Chairman stated, “Under current conditions, the FCC’s [newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership] rule is perverse.” In 2017, the FCC is poised to finally bring our media ownership rules into the digital age.
If this proposed Order is adopted, the FCC would make five significant nods to reality. First, we would once and for all eliminate the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule. In this day and age, if you want to buy a newspaper, you deserve a roadmap, not a roadblock. Second, we would eliminate the radio/television cross-ownership rule, which is unnecessary in today’s marketplace given the Commission’s separate local radio and local television ownership rules. Third, we would revise the local television ownership rule to eliminate the eight-voices test and incorporate a case-by-case review into the top-four restriction. This would better reflect the competitive conditions in local markets. Fourth, we would eliminate the attribution rule for television joint sales agreements, finding that JSAs serve the public interest by allowing broadcasters to better serve their local markets. And fifth, we would finally establish an incubator program to encourage greater diversity in and new entry into the media business and seek comment on what the details of that program should be.
Obviously, this is a lot to unpack and too much to cover succinctly here. As always, those interested in more details about what we are proposing and why should read the draft order. (This openness and transparency, too, is news that is fit to print.)
7. Updating Form 325 Requirements
The FCC will also take up the latest item in our Media Modernization Regulatory Initiative, which aims to revise or repeal obsolete media rules. Each year, cable operators have to submit to the FCC something we call Form 325. This form collects operational information on topics like network structure, system-wide capacity, programming, and the number of subscribers. The FCC’s last significant update to Form 325 occurred in 1999. That’s an eon in the telecom world. So we’re going to seek the public’s views on whether to eliminate Form 325 — because much of this information is now available from commercial sources — or, alternatively, whether to modernize and streamline the form to reflect technological and other changes.
8. Next Generation TV
Just as we want to encourage next-generation wireless services, the Commission initiated a rulemaking earlier this year to set the stage for the rollout of the “Next Generation” broadcast television transmission standard (Next Gen TV or ATSC 3.0). Next Generation TV would be the first standard to marry the advantages of broadcasting and the Internet. It holds the promise of delivering better video and audio, advanced emergency alerts, improved accessibility features, personalized and interactive content, and mobile television reception to American consumers, as I’ve explained before. But it can’t take off unless the FCC approves. In three weeks, we’ll vote on just that: whether to allow television broadcasters to use Next Gen TV on a voluntary, market-driven basis. The bottom line is this: I want America to be at the forefront of innovation in the broadcast sector, the wireless sector, and every other sector of the communications industry.
I realize I’ve gone a bit long here. So I wouldn’t blame you for living by Hamilton’s wry observation that “[t]he art of reading is to skip judiciously.” But as you can see, November will find the FCC as hard at work as ever. It’ll be another month of “energy in the executive” as we pursue the public interest.