Back Azimuth: Revisiting the Network Compact

You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday; to get your own copy, subscribe at

Round-Up for the Week of August 13-19, 2016

Will the Network Compact guide the next FCC?

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler was in Aspen (CO) this week addressing the 30th Annual Conference on Communications Policy. He returned to a familiar subject: the Network Compact. His aim was to offer a perspective on what lies ahead for the FCC by first looking back. Chairman Wheeler is known for his love of history. In his eyes, we are living through a network revolution driven by ever-evolving technology which is changing the patterns of commerce and culture. The lessons of how people dealt with past network revolutions are a “’back azimuth’,” Wheeler said, “a concept familiar to navigators in which a landmark in the rear is used to inform the path forward.”

“For the past almost eight years,” Chairman Wheeler said in Aspen, “the FCC has sought to confront network change head-on; to harness the network revolution to encourage economic growth, while standing with those who use the network as consumers and innovators.” The FCC’s back azimuth is the Network Compact: the responsibilities of those who build and operate networks. The struggle at the FCC in recent years has been to adapt traditional public interest values and protections to the new networks. “And we have been mindful that what we do will become the back azimuth for those who push on after us,” Wheeler said.

Five Components of the Network Compact: Access, Interconnection, Consumer Protection, Public Safety, and National Security

1. Access
Over the past seven and a half years, the FCC has been refocusing Universal Service Fund programs that support network construction and affordable telecommunications from the narrowband telephone networks of the 20th century to the high-capacity broadband networks needed for the 21st century. The FCC now requires USF high-cost only go to broadband. And with reform of the Lifeline program, those who receive low-income
support have more affordable access to broadband and the Internet, too. Reforms of the E-rate program mean that by the end of 2015 roughly 80 percent of school campuses in America had access to high-speed broadband. And because E-rate funding now covers school building Wi-Fi, broadband access is available at students’ desks, opening up the power of the Internet as a teaching tool.

Wireless broadband access is a key priority of the National Broadband Plan released in 2010. The FCC is currently conducting a complicated auction which is freeing up spectrum currently used by television broadcasters and repurposing it for wireless network use. The FCC has also identified spectrum for the next generation of high-capacity wireless networks, dubbed 5G.

Finally, the FCC has also adopted rules to accelerate “the use of technology by those who hear with their eyes, or see with their ears.”

2. Interconnection
“The ability to interconnect networks becomes crucial when the most important network of our day, the Internet, is but a collection of interconnected networks,” Wheeler said as he addressed the importance of the FCC’s work to ensure network neutrality. Just this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the FCC’s decision to classify broadband Internet access service providers as common carriers and prohibit blocking, throttling and paid prioritization.

Since the net neutrality order was adopted, Wheeler noted, “broadband investment is up, fiber deployment is up, network usage is up, network revenues are up, and investment in new uses of the network is up.”

3. Consumer Protection
Past network neutrality, the FCC has worked to protect consumers during the transition from analog wireline networks to digital networks. In 2015, the FCC adopted "rules of the road" governing changes in network facilities, and changes involving discontinuance, impairment, or reduction of legacy services. These changes ensure that deployment of innovative and improved communications services can continue without delay.

In addition, the FCC is currently working on giving consumers choice in the devices they use to access their pay-TV services, dealing with competitive access to essential last-mile facilities, and protecting consumer privacy rights for network-generated information.

4. Public Safety
The FCC has enhanced location accuracy requirements to help emergency responders better locate wireless 911 callers, required wireless carriers to institute the delivery of text 911 messages, and enforced network outage penalties when corporate failure has denied consumers the ability to make a 911 call. Chairman Wheeler called on Congress to make next-generation 911 services a priority so the expanded safety capabilities of digital networks are available to all consumers.

5. National Security
The FCC has worked with the telecommunications industry to develop cybersecurity standards and processes through a multi-stakeholder forum instead of adopting specific regulations. “[W]e work with industry to inspect the implementation of the agreed-to policies while maintaining the ability to step in with regulation if necessary,” Wheeler said. He noted the FCC’s new 5G rules as an example: the rules require that “new network design
must deal with cyber from the outset. In this new network that will drive the 21st century, cybersecurity will be a forethought, not an afterthought.”

“Elections Have Consequences”

Chairman Wheeler noted that 2016 is an election year and the election will determine if the work above is undone. But Wheeler also has an eye on the future and is thinking about issues not yet addressed. “I hope,” he said, “future FCCs will follow our course and continually reassess and reapply the Network Compact’s timeless principles to new realities.” Navigating through a network revolution, he said, is hard work as “the new networks … upend traditional economic activities” in energy, financial services, health care, and transportation.

“Government,” Wheeler said, “is where we will work this out…. Government is where we come together to collectively address common challenges. If we don’t use government to address our new challenges, we lose a lesson of history for which we will have only ourselves to blame.”

“Whether we handle our revolution with results as good as those who preceded us will be our test. Our networks define who are; and we have an opportunity to define one of history’s great network revolutions,” Wheeler concluded.

Trending at

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
coffee iconNSA’s use of software flaws to hack foreign targets posed risks to cybersecurity (Washington Post)
coffee iconYou think you’re using your smartphone — but it also uses you (Washington Post)
coffee iconFCC Loses It’s Muni Broadband Test Case. What Comes Next? (Harold Feld)
coffee iconalso see Assessing the FCC’s loss in the municipal broadband case (Daniel Lyons)

Events Calendar for Summer 2016
Aug 23 -- Open Meeting of the Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity, NIST
Aug 26 -- Board of Directors, Corporation for Public Broadcasting
Aug 31 -- Big Sky Broadband Workshop, NTIA

ICYMI From Benton
benton logoThe Most Important Part of the Telecommunications Business You Probably Don't Know About (Andrew Jay Schwartzman)
benton logoStates Again Can Restrict Community Broadband's Growth (Kevin Taglang)

By Kevin Taglang.