FCC Commits to Expanded Rural Deployment

The Federal Communications Commission celebrated what chairman Ajit Pai called "Rural Broadband Month" with a series of unanimous decisions at its Thursday meeting as well as opening a new approach to questionable radio license renewals and assessing a robocall abuser with an $82 million fine.

The commission gave the go-ahead for the next phase of the "Connect America Fund," which is intended to support $2 billion for rural broadband and voice services. It proposed a rulemaking that would improve broadband data collection and eliminate "unnecessary and burdensome requirements," and it initiated a notice of inquiry to evaluate use of "midband" spectrum, including shared use of the C-band, which has been widely used for rural satellite video services.

Two related decisions involved the Connect America Fund Phase II Auction (CAF II) and Mobility Fund Phase II Challenge (MF II).

CAF II will involve a reverse auction, scheduled for next year, that will raise nearly $2 billion within a decade to expand high-speed internet access to residential and enterprise users in rural areas. 

"This first-of-its-kind auction of support for fixed broadband and voice service is expected to attract parties that have never participated in an FCC auction," the commission said.  

The MF II's $4.53 billion (also over a ten-year period) is intended to bring 4G LTE service primarily to rural areas, using a process that will enable the FCC to determine eligible areas for the funding. The commission will establish a map of presumptively eligible areas to respond to those challenges.

Collectively, the FCC used the decisions as a way to show it "is committed to advancing seamless nationwide access to mobile voice and broadband services, primarily in rural areas, by responsibly allocating limited funds."

Pai observed that he has frequently talked "about the delays and difficulties… [affecting] the deployment of infrastructure on federal lands than can often leave rural areas, remote areas and tribal lands behind when it comes to access."

Citing the work of the recently established Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, Pai said that it will "soon be getting to work [to] tackle how we will address barriers to deployment on property that is controlled by the federal government."

The FCC also launched a notice of inquiry into "next-generation" opportunities for use of the spectrum between 3.7 GHz and 24 GHz—generally known as "mid-band spectrum"—seeking to explore "all potential options to meet the ever-increasing demands" for wireless bandwidth. The NOI seeks comment on three specific mid-range bands (3.7-4.2 GHz, 5.925-6.425 GHz, and 6.425-7.125 GHz) and asks commenters to identify other non-federal midband frequencies that may be suitable for expanded flexible use. 

Among other factors, the FCC wants to know "how to protect existing services against harmful interference" and whether these bands can be flexible enough "to allow the introduction of additional fixed and mobile wireless services."  It also seeks ideas about the spectrum now mainly used for fixed services and if it can be "modified to make the bands more suitable for wireless use."

And, in keeping with the deregulatory motif of the chairman, the NOI asks, "Can existing rules be eliminated to reduce regulatory burdens and maximize efficient use?"

Federal Form Like 'Game of Thrones'

Seeking to improve the value of its "Form 477," which collects provider information on wired and wireless broadband facilities, the FCC opened a notice of proposed rulemaking to obtain industry and consumer feedback about improvements in the data collection process. The FCC has been collecting deployment data since 2000, with providers required to submit updates twice annually. The FCC acknowledged that one goal of the proceeding will be to eliminate burdensome collection requirements.

Comparing Form 477 to a popular HBO series, Pai said that it is "like a Game of Thrones of data sets in terms of the buzz it generates in Washington." He noted that when he testified in Congress twice last month, the term "Form 477" was mentioned by name a total of nine times.

"Form 477 generates one of our most important data seta at the FCC, one that we rely on every day," he said but then fretted that the FCC must determine whether "the burdens of collection outweigh the benefits."

"Data collection that pile up for little reason other than inertia" present a disservice, Pai explained, adding that "every dollar that we make providers spend filing data that we don't need is a dollar that they can't spend connecting Americans."

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn cited misleading interpretations that the current data can create. She noted that the FCC's National Broadband Map website makes it appear that "all parts of Alexandria, Virginia, have a choice between two fixed providers [offering] over 10 megabit service."

"This is far from accurate," Clyburn said, citing it as an example of the problem that "the Commission's data on broadband availability does not accurately reflect the realities."

Radio Station Probe, UHD Discount Plan, BDAC Status

The commission voted unanimously to examine the renewal application of a Michigan radio station that has gone on the air only one day per year since 2010. The full commission, rather than an administrative law judge, will determine whether the license of Radioactive LLC's WRAX-FM in Lake Isabella, Mich., should be renewed. The "hearing designation order" is intended as a test for whether this "streamlined process may be an effective means for the Commission to address [similar] renewal applications."

At a news conference after the meeting, Pai said he "maintains the commitment" to address the UHF discount later this year. Commissioner Michael O'Rielly repeated his previous stance that he does "not support the 39% cap" and that "wants to see it litigated out."

"I think it is going to be litigated in court," O'Rielly said.

In response to a question about the lack of municipal membership on the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, which was established in January, Pai said he is "pleased at the representation."

"We have state and local representatives, tribal representatives, builders, wireless, cable, satellite interests represented in one way or another," Pai said. "We have had a challenging task to try to shoehorn all those different interest into limited membership."

Robocall Abusers Gets $82 Million Fine

The FCC levied a fine of $82,106,000 against Best Insurance Contracts and its owner/operator Philip Roesel for 21 million spoofed robocalls that violated the Truth in Caller ID Act. FCC investigators found that the robocalls displayed inaccurate caller ID information as they tried to sell health insurance targeted to vulnerable consumers. The calls were made during a three-month period in late 2016 through January of this year.

Clyburn, in remarks before the unanimous vote, fumed that, in addition to the "heartless" scam of old and poor consumers, "the flood of robocalls… harmed emergency communications between the doctors, Emergency Medical Technicians and other first responders" in her "second home town of Columbia, S.C."

Pai added a warning to other robocall perpetrators: "We will do everything in our power to put you out of business."

The commission's next meeting is scheduled for September 28, 2017.

Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.