At CCA Convention, FCC Commissioners Discuss Competition and the Future of Mobile Broadband

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Robbie's Round-Up for the Week of September 19-23, 2016

This week, three members of the Federal Communications Commission spoke to the Competitive Carriers Association, an advocacy organization for competitive wireless carriers. Their remarks highlight mobile broadband policy priorities.

Chairman Wheeler: Setting Agenda Deadlines
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler discussed two items that have a large impact for the wireless industry: roaming standards and Business Data Services. And he promised to take action before the end of the year.

Roaming Standards
Rural carriers have filed complaints with the FCC alleging commercial carriers are charging unreasonable roaming rates. As a result, some smaller providers have placed usage and speed restrictions on roaming traffic. In the 2015 Open Internet order, Chairman Wheeler said the FCC promised to revisit data roaming obligations. Now, he has indicated that now the time has come. “CCA has been vocal in holding the Commission to its word and calling on us to apply uniform roaming standards across voice and data services,” Chairman Wheeler said. “We’ve heard you, and we’re ready to act. Before the end of the year, I plan to call on my fellow Commissioners to adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Commission’s data roaming framework.”

To make progress on the issue, Chairman Wheeler said, the FCC is working to move forward with Phase II of the Mobility Fund. The Mobility Fund is the wireless component of the Connect America Fund. It provides support for the expansion of mobile broadband networks in areas that might otherwise not be served. According to Chairman Wheeler, tackling this issue will allow the FCC to provide greater certainty in the marketplace, while promoting consumer benefits and competition.

Business Data Services
Chairman Wheeler also made comments related to “Business Data Services” (BDS) -- the bulk data connections businesses buy to connect things like retail outlets, ATM machines, and cell towers. This $20 billion market is dominated by AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, and Frontier. Smaller companies accuse these large players of abusing their market power. Smaller carriers air grievances in a way similar to consumers dealing with their own wireless provider -- with complaints of monopolistic prices, volume commitments, and early termination fees. The BDS undertaking is certainly a challenge -- as illustrated in Benton Senior Counselor at the Public Interest Communications Law Project at Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation Andy Schwartzman’s The Most Important Part of the Telecommunications Business You Probably Don't Know About.

In his speech, Chairman Wheeler pitched BDS reform as a necessity for universal wireless coverage. "If there is going to be universal wireless coverage, there needs to be fair access to backhaul," he said. "In many areas, competition in the supply of backhaul remains limited, and that can translate into higher costs for wireless networks, higher prices for consumers, and an adverse impact on competition." He said that lack of competition "cannot be used to hold back wireless coverage."

"Notably, reform is supported by the nation’s leading wireless carriers, save one," he said, a reference to AT&T, which has joined with Internet service providers to push back on the FCC proposal, which is based on a compromise offered up by INCOMPAS and Verizon.

BDS will continue to be an issue of debate in the months ahead, but with his speech at CCA, Chairman Wheeler has committed to resolving the issue before the year is over.

Commissioner Clyburn: Connect2Health

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn focused her remarks on the FCC’s Connect2Health Task Force. Launched in 2014, the Task Force has been studying how the power of broadband can be used to accelerate the adoption of health care technologies. “What we have learned from this initiative,” Commissioner Clyburn said, “is that rural counties are ten times as likely as urban areas to have low broadband access and high diabetes. Similarly, the neediest counties when it comes to the intersection of broadband and health are concentrated in the South and Midwest. Knowing this information will help both the public and private sectors target limited resources to improve infrastructure and deploy connected health technologies.”

“As wireless providers, many of which serve rural communities, you know the significance of broadband-enabled health care,” Clyburn told CCA. “The connectivity you provide is more than just a gateway to devices, services or apps; it is also about the individual, the consumer, the patient. It is about how technology can meet the needs and improve the lives of people in all communities. It is about how universal access to health care – access to the same care and well-being as your well-heeled neighbor – strengthens the bonds within our local communities.”

Commissioner Pai: Digital Empowerment Agenda
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai spoke mostly of his Digital Empowerment Agenda -- his plan to close the digital divide. For more info on his Digital Empowerment Agenda, you can read last week’s Round-Up, Setting the (Post-Election) Broadband Agenda.

Commissioner Pai went into detail regarding the unique challenges that impact wireless services in rural America, and offered his three-step plan to “make it easier for rural consumers to benefit from the wireless revolution.” His plan:

  1. Mobility Fund Phase II: “The FCC must move forward with the Mobility Fund Phase II. We need objective, technologically neutral performance standards. We need to end subsidies in areas where private investment is doing the job.”
  2. Rural Dividends: “Getting the job done in rural America may take more funding than is currently available in the Universal Service Fund. That’s why I believe Congress should authorize a ‘rural dividend’ from the sale of wireless spectrum.”
  • When the FCC auctions spectrum, it would take 10 percent of net proceeds raised from the sale and use it to support mobile broadband deployment in rural America.
  • License Terms and Buildout Obligations: “We need to take a fresh look at license terms and buildout obligations. I’ve proposed to increase the license terms for wireless companies to 15 years in exchange for increased buildout obligations. In combination, I hope these changes will give wireless providers the certainty and timeline necessary for them to continue to invest in rural America.”
    • Importantly for CCA members, these additional buildout obligations may encourage license holders to partition and sell their licenses to rural wireless providers hungry for spectrum.

    Commissioner Pai made a special note to discuss his plan of “Gigabit Opportunity Zones”, his idea to encourage broadband deployment in low-income areas by giving ISPs financial incentives to deploy gigabit broadband. To the room full of wireless provider representatives, Commissioner Pai stated, “...because these reforms don’t just benefit gigabit-fiber builds, any ISP—including wireless providers—could take advantage of the streamlined regulations to deploy their antennas, small cells, backhaul, and other broadband infrastructure.”

    The growing importance of mobile broadband is something we read about all the time in Headlines. The remarks at CCA illustrate the role FCC commissioners see for wireless – and the importance of competition to encourage broadband deployment, adoption and use.

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    Election 2016

    Quick Bits

    Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
    coffee iconHow AT&T and Verizon Are Testing the Limits of Mobile Net Neutrality (Fortune)
    coffee iconThe Cable and Hollywood Endgame to Kill Set-top Box Competition (Public Knowledge)
    coffee iconA Survey of State Broadband Programs (James Bradford Ramsay, State Members of Federal-State Joint Conference on Advanced Services )
    coffee iconDigital Readiness Gaps (Pew Research Center)
    coffee iconStanford researchers invent tech workaround to net neutrality fights (IDG News Service)

    Events Calendar for Sept 26-30, 2016
    Sept 26 -- Technology Transitions Info Session, FCC
    Sept 27 -- Oversight of the FTC, Senate Commerce Committee
    Sept 27 -- Cybersecurity in the Asia-Pacific: Where does it stand? Where is it headed?, New America
    Sept 28 -- Wi-Fi and Unlicensed LTE, New America
    Sept 29 -- FCC Open Meeting September 2016, FCC
    Sept 29 -- Happy 30th Birthday to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—Perhaps the Worst Law in Technology, New America
    Sept 29 -- A Discussion of NTIA and NSF's National Broadband Research Agenda, SHLB Coalition and the Benton Foundation
    Sept 30 -- Digital Economy Board of Advisors, NTIA
    Sept 30-Oct 1 -- 44th Research Conference on Communications, Information, and Internet Policy, TPRC

    ICYMI From Benton
    benton logoSetting the Communications Policy Agenda for the Next Administration, Richard Adler
    benton logoWi-Fi and Wireless Networking for Community Anchor Institutions, Amelia Bryne
    benton logoSetting the (Post-Election) Broadband Agenda, Robbie McBeath

    By Robbie McBeath.