On the Road Again

Earlier this month, I completed the latest leg of my ongoing digital divide tour, logging over 500 miles in a rental car across Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Yet again, I heard stories about how broadband connectivity can bring new opportunities and services just about anywhere. In Scottsville, Kentucky, a town of 4,000 that’s nearly 30 miles from the nearest pediatrician, I visited a school where telemedicine allows sick students to be treated by doctors at Vanderbilt University’s Children’s Hospital in Nashville. The next day, I attended a roundtable in Franklin, Tennessee, where I heard from local leaders about how access to high-speed broadband is necessary for economic growth in rural areas.

The FCC has been hard at work doing what we can to help close the digital divide. Last month, the application window closed for our first-of-its-kind Connect America Fund Phase II reverse auction, which will distribute nearly $2 billion to expand fixed broadband deployment in rural America. The reverse auction will begin on July 24. Last month, we also took a significant leap forward in streamlining our wireless infrastructure rules, which is projected to cut deployment costs by up to $1.56 billion by 2026. But we’re always looking to do more.

One way we can expand connectivity is promoting more efficient and productive use of underused spectrum. Earlier this week, the FCC kicked off the process for auctioning the 28 GHz and 24 GHz bands, which will get previously underused high-band spectrum into the hands of those champing at the bit to deploy next-generation wireless broadband services, commonly known as 5G.

This month, we tackle mid-band spectrum in the 2.5 GHz range. Significant portions of the Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum in this band currently lie fallow across approximately one-half of the United States, mostly in rural areas. And we haven’t granted new access to the entire 114 MHz of spectrum in this band for over 20 years. In other words, a scarce public resource that could be used to connect millions of Americans for a long time hasn’t been put to the best use, if it’s even been used at all. At a time when we are seeking to lead the world in 5G and connect every American with digital opportunity, that’s not acceptable. We can’t afford to leave this large band of spectrum behind.

That’s why we will vote at our May 10 meeting on a proposal to allow more efficient and effective use of this band. Specifically, I’m proposing provide greater flexibility to current EBS licensees to freely use and transfer their spectrum. We would consider new opportunities for educational entities and Tribal Nations to gain access to this spectrum in places where they have a local presence and can best serve their communities. And we would open up the remaining 2.5 GHz spectrum for auction to anyone, including commercial entities, on a flexible-use basis.

I barely had time to recover from my three-state trip through the Mid-South before I found myself on a plane to Las Vegas to join America’s broadcasters for their biggest annual convention. Among other things, I spoke of my commitment to modernizing our media rules to match the marketplace and technology of today.

One year ago, I launched our Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative, a comprehensive review of our media regulations. The aim was to identify rules that needed to be updated or repealed altogether. We’ve already started nine separate rulemakings as a result of this effort; today, I’m proposing number ten.

Currently, the FCC has rules that require broadcasters to physically display or maintain their licenses and related information in specific locations. But now, most of this information is available through the Commission’s electronic databases. As with cable channel lineups and hardcopies of the FCC’s rules (each of which we’ve addressed previously), these rules seem redundant and obsolete. So I’ll ask Commissioners to consider streamlining or eliminating them altogether.

Additionally, at our May meeting, the FCC will consider ways to mitigate any interference caused by the expanded use of FM translators. The goal is to simplify and expedite the interference complaint process, which would benefit both full-power FM radio stations and FM translators. Among other things, my proposal: (1) would allow translator stations to resolve interference by moving to any available same-band channel using a minor modification application; and (2) would require a minimum number of legitimate complaints to support any interference claim.

Our May agenda will also include a Hearing Designation Order and an enforcement item. I wish I could share details of these, but each of them has to remain confidential until the meeting.

There’s one final, bittersweet observation about the May meeting I feel compelled to make. The FCC’s May 2017 meeting will be the first since 2009 where Commissioner Mignon Clyburn will not be casting votes. She announced yesterday that her time at the FCC will come to a close before May 10. I want to take this opportunity to once again salute Commissioner Clyburn on her public service. She has been a tremendous leader, including as the first woman to head the agency, and she has shown steadfast resolve on issues as varied as telehealth, media diversity, and digital inclusion. I’ve enjoyed working with her and, even when we have not seen eye-to-eye on policy, I’ve always held her candor and thoughtfulness in the highest regard. She’s been a wonderful colleague and friend. I wish her the best as she heads out toward the open road.

And the road is where I’ll close, too. One of the great joys of my job is having the privilege of meeting people from all across the country and hearing their stories. These interactions inform our work and inspire me to keep pushing ahead. I’m grateful that, yet again, the FCC is taking our lessons from around the country and translating them into action. And in the words of the inimitable Willie Nelson, I just can’t wait to get on the road again and learn more from the American people.

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