Why We Need a Full-Strength FCC

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, December 9, 2022

Weekly Digest

Why We Need a Full-Strength FCC

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of December 5-9, 2023

Kevin Taglang

The Federal Communications Commission is the lead U.S. agency on a number of technically and legally complex issues that increasingly impact economic opportunity, health, education, and civic engagement. As a nation, we rely upon the FCC to:

  • Promote competition, innovation and investment in broadband services and facilities,
  • Support the nation's economy by ensuring an appropriate competitive framework for the unfolding of the communications revolution,
  • Ensure the highest and best use of spectrum domestically and internationally,
  • Advance diversity and localism, and
  • Strengthen the defense of the nation's communications infrastructure.

Since January 20, 2021, the FCC has been led by four commissioners: Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioners Brendan Carr, Geoffrey Starks, and Nathan Simington. The Communications Act of 1934, which created the FCC, calls for five commissioners. President Joe Biden nominated Gigi B. Sohn to be the fifth commissioner on October 26, 2021. But Sohn, a Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and the Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate, still awaits a Senate confirmation vote. 

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has been making the best of the four-commissioner FCC. She has managed to get votes on a number of important items like affordable broadband, national security, network security, spectrum auctions, and responding to climate change. However, there are many important outstanding matters that have remained unresolved. Over the past year, there have been over a dozen items that Chairwoman Rosenworcel has teed up for action by the full FCC, items that languish because the FCC does not have the full complement of experts Congress envisioned. 

Closing the Homework Gap

Jessica Rosenworcel has long championed internet access for all students "no matter who they are or where they live." Back in May, Chairwoman Rosenworcel proposed to allow the use of federal funding for Wi-Fi in school buses. Her proposed Declaratory Ruling would allow E-Rate program funding to equip school buses with Wi-Fi, providing substantial benefits to students, including millions of students caught in the Homework Gap. The proposal would clarify that use of Wi-Fi or similar access point technologies on school buses serves an educational purpose and the provision of such service is therefore eligible for E-Rate funding. 

According to the American School Bus Council, K-12 students in the U.S. spend an average of 180 hours on the school bus each year. That's the same as 20 total instructional days per student.  Some school districts that have already equipped buses with Wi-Fi have seen that it decreased the number of bus discipline referrals and made the ride quieter.

Over the years, the FCC has received many requests from E-Rate stakeholders asking that Wi-Fi on school buses be made eligible for E-Rate funding to enhance broadband access to students. With some technology, providing an additional instructional day can cost as little as 58 cents per student.

Using funding for this purpose is consistent with the FCC’s past determinations regarding other eligible off-campus uses of E-Rate-supported services. The draft Declaratory Ruling directs the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau to include funding Wi-Fi on buses in establishing E-Rate eligible services. But the item has not been acted upon. A fifth FCC commissioner could review this proposal, help improve it, and ensure the commission provides the resources needed to improve access to educational tools.

Updating Measures of Broadband

As became all-too-clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, affordable, high-speed broadband for individuals, families, and communities is essential to be able to work, learn, and connect remotely. But the digital divide disproportionately affects communities of color, lower-income areas, and rural areas.

To ensure the benefits of broadband are enjoyed by all, Congress requires the FCC to regularly determine whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. The FCC last did that in a report issued in January 2021.

In July 2022, Chairwoman Rosenworcel proposed a Notice of Inquiry to kick off the agency’s evaluation of the state of broadband across the country. As part of this assessment, Chairwoman Rosenworcel proposed increasing the national standard for minimum broadband speeds and proposed setting a long-term goal for broadband speed. The FCC last updated its broadband standard in 2015, setting it at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, speeds that many find inadequate in 2022. The Notice of Inquiry proposes to increase the national broadband standard to 100 megabits per second for download and 20 megabits per second for upload, and discusses a range of evidence supporting this standard, including the 100/20 Mbps requirements for new networks funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Notice of Inquiry also proposes to set a separate national goal of 1 Gbps/500 Mbps for the future. Looking beyond speed, Chairwoman Rosenworcel also proposed that the FCC consider affordability, adoption, availability, and equitable access as part of its determination as to whether broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.

But the proceeding has not yet started because the item has not been voted out. As the federal government makes its largest investments ever in broadband deployment, adoption and affordability, the FCC's analysis of the digital divide is sorely needed.

Broadband Data and Mapping

The need for accurate data pinpointing where broadband service is available, and where it is not available, has never been greater, especially since broadband availability data will determine state allocations of federal support for broadband deployment.

In March 2020, Congress directed the FCC to make fundamental changes to its requirements, processes, and approach for the collection of data on the availability and quality of fixed and mobile broadband Internet access service throughout the United States. In response to this direction, just last month the FCC released a pre-production draft of its new National Broadband Map.  The map has received mixed reviews, with some commenting that it is the most accurate data because it contains location-level information—and others still frustrated by and challenging both the location and broadband availability data. For example, New York’s state government recently brought its own challenge, arguing that it found 31,000 locations missing from the fabric data.

Since November 22, there has been a data collection item on circulation at the FCC, but no further action taken. If the nation is going to really ensure internet for all, we need the most accurate data about where broadband reaches and where it doesn't.

Spectrum Issues

Airwaves for Public Safety

In September 2021, the FCC adopted rules to protect public safety operations in the 4.9 GHz spectrum band. In addition to rules, the FCC launched a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking to establish a nationwide framework for the band that will spur technical innovation, lower equipment costs, and promote interoperable communications. The Further Notice explored options to ensure public safety use of the band, including protecting public safety users from harmful interference, collecting more granular licensing data, and adopting technical standards to promote interoperability. The further notice also seeks comment on ways to encourage use of new technologies, including 5G, and dynamic spectrum access systems to facilitate coexistence between public safety and non-public safety uses of the band. Since late October, new rules and a proposal for additional rules have been ready for a vote by the commissioners but none has been taken. 

Protecting the Accuracy of Weather Forecasting

The oldest item before the FCC that is ready for a vote dates back to December 2021. The FCC is considering rules to protect certain sensors from unwanted, out-of-band emissions. These particular sensors are located on satellites used to take measurements of water vapor and cloud liquid water that are used in weather forecasting. These passive sensors are designed to receive and measure natural emissions produced by the Earth’s surface and atmosphere. As these sensors receive all natural and man-made emissions in general, passive sensors may not be able to differentiate these two sources of signals.

On August 10, 2021, the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology wrote to Chairwoman Rosenworcel, encouraging attention to the matter because of concerns about the integrity of global weather forecasting, satellite-based climate measurements, and ground-based radio astronomy observations

Drone Communication

Since August, a proceeding to update the FCC's rules around unmanned aircraft systems has also languished. Unmanned aircraft systems are increasingly used for a wide variety of recreational, commercial, and governmental applications, including inspection of towers, pipelines, and buildings, aerial photography, mapping, and surveillance, deliveries from consumer packages to critical medical supplies, and support for emergency operations like search and rescue, post-hurricane recovery, and wildfire response. While unmanned aircraft communications have primarily relied on unlicensed access to spectrum, some proponents assert that licensed spectrum will increasingly be needed to provide both the spectrum capacity to support future growth and the reliability needed for safe operations to protect life and property in circumstances such as flights in populated areas or beyond-line-of-sight. The Aerospace Industries Association asked the FCC to adopt licensing and service rules for Control and Non-Payload Communications (CNPC) links in the 5030-5091 MHz band to support unmanned aircraft system operations in the United States. The FCC has teed up a proceeding to consider appropriate rules, but no vote has been taken to launch the proceeding.

Consumer Protection and Enforcement

Reducing Robocalls

One of the scourges of modern telecommunications is robocalls. U.S. consumers receive approximately 4 billion robocalls per month. Amazingly, one auto warranty scam operation has been responsible for making more than eight billion robocall messages since 2018. 

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 prohibits anyone from: 1) using an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) or an artificial or prerecorded voice (APV) to make a call to any emergency telephone line; 2) initiating any call to a residential telephone line using an APV to deliver a message without the consent of the called party; or 3) using an ATDS in such a way that two or more telephone lines of a multi-line business are engaged simultaneously. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sought clarification that certain automated calls and text messages or prerecorded voice calls relating to enrollment in state Medicaid and other governmental health coverage programs are permissible. An order and declaratory ruling on circulation at the FCC since late November may resolve that issue, but we won't know until it is voted on.

Reporting Data Breaches

In January 2022, Chairwoman Rosenworcel circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would begin the process of strengthening the FCC’s rules for notifying customers and federal law enforcement of breaches of customer proprietary network information (CPNI). The proposal outlined several updates to current FCC rules addressing telecommunications carriers’ breach notification requirements including:

  • Eliminating the current seven business day mandatory waiting period for notifying customers of a breach;
  • Expanding customer protections by requiring notification of inadvertent breaches; and
  • Requiring carriers to notify the FCC of all reportable breaches in addition to the FBI and U.S. Secret Service.

The FCC has not launched the proceeding yet.


The FCC is responsible for enforcing the provisions of U.S. communications law, its own rules, orders, and various licensing terms and conditions. Since late August, four enforcement orders have awaited a full vote but have not been acted upon.

Breaking the Deadlock

Much ink has been spilled over the past year over the nomination of Gigi Sohn. To simply cut to the chase, the latest update comes from LightReading:

With the midterm elections out of the way, and the Senate to remain in Democratic control, Gigi Sohn, President Biden's pick for fifth FCC Commissioner – nominated back in October 2021—is likely to get confirmed. Some in the industry think it could happen under the current Congress before the end of the year.

In a recent letter, labor groups, including the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, urged senators "to swiftly advance the nomination of Gigi Sohn" noting that the "FCC needs a fully seated commission in order to make critical decisions during a period of increased federal investment in broadband networks and digital equity initiatives."

The FCC's backlogged agenda proves their point. 

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Dec 13—Ensuring Solutions to Meet America's Broadband Needs (Senate Commerce Committee)

Dec 13—Finding Success with Community Broadband Deployments “To and Through” Anchor Institutions (Schools Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition)

Dec 14—Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program FY 2023 Webinar (Rural Utilities Service)

Dec 14—How Can Permitting & ROW Affect Broadband Deployment (Fiber Broadband Association)

Dec 14—Internet for All Webinar Series - Permitting 101 (NTIA)

Dec 15—5G is smart. Now let’s make it secure (Brookings)

Dec 16—ACP Outreach Grant Program Office Hours (FCC)



The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

© Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2022. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally - is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.