The FCC’s Thanksgiving Menu: 5G, Rural Broadband, and Stopping Unwanted Robocalls

This week, families all across the country will be traveling over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. And after a tried-and-true combination of turkey, pumpkin pie, repartee, and football, millions of Americans will fall into a food coma.

One thing that might wake them up (well, probably not, but it can’t hurt to try) is the prospect of another breakthrough in U.S. leadership on 5G — specifically, the FCC’s upcoming move at our December open meeting to make yet more spectrum available for the next generation of wireless technology. Last week, the Commission launched the first of two auctions of high-band spectrum (28 GHz, to be followed by 24 GHz) that was previously thought to be useless, but can now be used for 5G. And today, I’m circulating an order that would enable the Commission to move forward with an auction of the Upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz bands by the end of 2019. In combination, the Upper 37 GHz and the 39 GHz bands offer the largest amount of contiguous spectrum in the millimeter-wave bands for flexible-use wireless services — a total of 2,400 megahertz — and the 47 GHz band will provide an additional 1,000 megahertz of millimeter-wave spectrum for such services. Notably, this would be the second time the Commission uses an incentive auction format. And combined, all of these auctions will free up more spectrum than is currently used to provide terrestrial mobile broadband by all providers combined.

From wireless to wired: One thing you can’t count on if your grandma lives in one of America’s most remote rural communities is access to high-speed broadband. So in December, we’ll continue to pursue our goal of closing the digital divide with a measure to help connect some of America’s hardest-to-reach communities.

Here’s how. The FCC administers what is known as the Universal Service Fund, or USF. You pay into the USF through your phone bill, typically with a line-item called a “universal service fee.” The USF has several programs aimed at helping close the digital divide. This includes what we call our high-cost program, which subsidizes rural-focused carriers called rate-of-return carriers as they build broadband networks in some of the most difficult-to-serve parts of our country.

There are a few basic principles that animate — or should — the high-cost program. First, subsidies should provide maximum incentive to be efficient; we want to stretch taxpayer dollars as far as possible. Second, subsidies should be sufficient to build out networks; after all, these are areas where the business case for private investment is lacking. Third, the program should support high-quality services; rural Americans deserve services that are comparable to those in urban areas. And fourth, subsidies should be predictable; after all, building networks is a serious long-term proposition, not a one-time whim. Unfortunately, for many, many years, the program hasn’t satisfied each of these important principles.

We’re hoping to change that in December. First, we’re working to promote efficiency by moving away from simply telling rate-of-return carriers what their allowable costs and return on investment will be and toward setting broad goals for deployment and rewarding companies for being efficient in meeting those goals (what’s called an “incentive-based” model). Specifically, we’re offering rate-of-return carriers another opportunity to opt in to model-based support, which would give them a guaranteed revenue stream for a decade in exchange for meeting specified buildout requirements. Second, we’re ensuring support is sufficient by offering additional funding to carriers that currently receive model-based support and who agree to meet increased buildout requirements. We’re also increasing funding for carriers who do not receive model-based support. Third, we’re recognizing that rural Americans need and deserved high-quality services by increasing the target speeds for subsidized deployments from 10/1 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps. And fourth, we’re making the program more predictable by setting a new long-term budget for rate-of-return carriers who choose not to opt in to model-based support and ending arbitrary funding cuts. Long story short, we’re making the Universal Service Fund a more efficient, effective way of distributing funding to close the digital divide.

From what we want (rural broadband) to what we don’t, combatting unwanted robocalls tops our consumer protection agenda. Just two weeks ago, I called on the phone industry to implement a robust call authentication system to combat illegal caller ID spoofing and launch that system no later than next year. Also this month, the Commission sent letters to voice providers, calling on them to assist industry efforts to trace scam robocalls that originate on or pass through their networks, which can assist the FCC in identifying the source of illegal calls. At our December meeting, we can take another important action to curb the tide of unwanted calls by addressing the issue of calls to phone numbers that have been reassigned.

Consumer groups and legitimate businesses that place calls (say, pharmacies or local banks) have repeatedly asked the FCC to enable callers to quickly learn of all reassignments. The problem is two-fold. On the one hand, consumers who have a reassigned number can receive unwanted calls intended for the previous number-holder. At the same time, the consumer that used to have that number can miss time-sensitive, important calls like fraud alerts, calls from a child’s school, or notifications from a doctor’s office. In three weeks, the FCC will vote on new rules to tackle this problem by establishing a single, comprehensive database that will contain reassigned number information from each provider that obtains phone numbers for use in America — specifically, North American Numbering Plan (NANP) U.S. geographic numbers. The database will enable any caller to verify whether a telephone number has been reassigned before calling that number. These rules would reduce the number of unwanted calls consumers receive and enable businesses to make sure they are not wasting your — or their — time.

On a related note, we want to help shield consumers from unwanted contacts on their phones, no matter what kind of contact it is. As you surely know, the preferred method of communication among many Americans is increasingly text messaging. Thankfully, wireless messaging remains a relatively spam-free service. The spam rate for text messages is estimated at 2.8%, compared to a rate of over 50% for email. That’s not by accident. Today’s wireless messaging providers apply filtering to prevent large volumes of unwanted messages from ever reaching your phone. However, there’s been an effort underway to put these successful consumer protections at risk. In 2015, a mass-texting company named Twilio petitioned the FCC, arguing that wireless messaging should be classified as a “telecommunications service.” This may not seem like a big deal, but such a classification would dramatically curb the ability of wireless providers to use robotext-blocking, anti-spoofing, and other anti-spam features. So I’m circulating a Declaratory Ruling that would instead classify wireless messaging as an “information service.” Aside from being a more legally sound approach, this decision would keep the floodgates to a torrent of spam texts closed, remove regulatory uncertainty, and empower providers to continue finding innovative ways to protect consumers from unwanted text messages.

On the media front, we’ll be kicking off a review of our media ownership rules — a review we’re required by statute to conduct every four years. The 2018 Quadrennial Review, as it’s called, will begin with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which seeks public input on the relevant rules, such as the Local Radio Ownership Rule, as well as several diversity-related proposals.

As part of the Commission’s ongoing Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative, we will also consider an order to eliminate certain rules that require broadcast licensees to maintain and display copies of their licenses and other related materials in specific locations, such as at their transmitter sites. Now that licensing information is readily accessible online through the FCC’s databases, these rules are redundant and obsolete.

Turning from repealing to reporting: The FCC has long been required by law to submit a variety of reports to Congress. Each of these reports used to be issued as separate documents and at different times, making it hard for elected officials and the public to track everything down. To streamline these reports into a single document providing a comprehensive evaluation of the state of the communications marketplace in the United States, Congress, in the RAY BAUM’S Act of 2018, required the FCC to craft every two years what we are calling our Communications Marketplace Report. The draft report I’m circulating for my colleagues’ consideration consolidates many of the reports that the Commission had been previously required to produce. For the first time, the Report places essential information about mobile wireless, video, audio, wireline broadband, voice telephony, satellite, broadband deployment, and international broadband all in one place.

In the spirit of the season, I want to close by expressing my gratitude to the men and women at the FCC who worked so hard on these items, and who work year-round to improve the lives of the American people. I can’t say thank you enough to these dedicated public servants. They are the best co-workers anyone could ask for, and I wish the American people could know all of them and their accomplishments. To them and to you — whether you’re heading to grandmother’s house or staying put this week — here’s wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.