The FCC will be “very busy” in 2019 as it continues to pursue efforts to close the digital divide, as well as address public safety and consumer protection issues, such as network resiliency and robocalling, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
During an interview for C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” program set to air tomorrow and Monday, Chairman Pai noted the agency’s plans for additional spectrum auctions in 2019.
“In addition to that the 5G infrastructure of the future will be a big factor in 2019, we’ve taken some of the steps in 2018 to make it easier to deploy that infrastructure and look forward to following up on that in 2019. In addition to that, we’ve been doing a lot on the public safety front in the wake of the hurricane season of 2017 as well as the wildfires and other emergencies in 2018. We’ve been taking a look at some of our frameworks, for example, wireless emergency alerts [and] the wireless resiliency framework. I personally have spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Florida, and Texas, trying to get a sense of what is happening on the ground and if there are ways that we can improve our processes to make sure these communications networks are back up and running. It’s not going to be a slow time in 2019 just as it was a pretty active time in 2017 and 2018.”
Asked how his travels around the U.S. have informed policy decisions at the FCC, and whether he plans to continue his trips outside Washington, Chairman Pai said, “Absolutely. To me there’s no substitute to getting out into the countryside and seeing how people are affected by the FCC’s decisions, or could be, in a positive way.”
For example, he said, visits to Veterans Affairs facilities and private hospitals in smaller communities “does help me understand the importance of telemedicine, and motivates me to want to come back to the FCC and boost support for our programs. So, for example, under my leadership for the first time in a generation we increased the budget of the Rural Health Care Program from $400 million to $571 million in 2017, and also we’re indexing it for inflation so it will go up accordingly.
“In addition, we’ve established some really interesting partnerships. I was just in an event with the Veterans Affairs Department last week [TR Daily, Dec. 6] for example talking about ways we can work together so that veterans who are in these underserved areas, medically speaking, can get better healthcare. Same thing with the National Cancer Institute. We have a memorandum of understanding [TR Daily, Dec. 12, 2017] so that we can work together to find out if there is a way to overlay broadband access with cancer rates, to essentially match the two to make sure that cancer patients are getting the treatment and advice they need,” he added.
Asked about the effect on the Commission of Democrats taking control of the House in January, Mr. Pai said, “I think it’s a good thing.”
Mentioning issues such as broadband deployment, telemedicine, precision agriculture, and online education, he said, “I think a lot of these digital divide initiatives are so important for the country, and if a particular party or a congressman or senator takes credit for that, great! America wins, I think, when we get more broadband Internet access out there. So I’m really looking forward to working with the new House in the next Congress and the new Senate as well. And I think we have a lot of great things we can accomplish for the American people.”
As to whether he was frustrated at having to suspend action in the Mobility Fund Phase II process pending an investigation of whether major carriers violated FCC rules by submitting inaccurate data on areas they already serve with 4G LTE (TR Daily, Dec. 7), Chairman Pai said, “Look, to me, it’s not just professional, it’s personal. When I fly home to Kansas City and I drive about three and a half hours south to my hometown, I can tell you once you get to the outer Kansas City suburbs, you see the bars on your phone start to drop and soon thereafter there’s no service at all for long stretches. And I understand personally the costs to many of these communities for not having wireless coverage. During one of my trips to Mission, S.D., for example, I heard about a woman on the Indian reservation near there. She was found dead in her home, and she was clutching her cellphone. She dialed 911 38 times, but the call never went through, because she didn’t have wireless coverage. This is really a matter of life and death in some circumstances.”
Asked what the consequences should be for carriers that submitted inaccurate data, he said, “That’s a question that’s inextricably intertwined with the enforcement investigation that I announced last week and so I can’t comment on what the remedies or penalties might be as a result of that might be.”
In response to a question about what other ways the FCC could obtain data on coverage, Mr. Pai said, “Some steps have already been taken. … Going forward we want to know that we have accurate data.”
Asked whether the Commission would delay a decision in its review of the proposed merger of T-Mobile US, Inc., and Sprint Corp. pending the outcomes of the MF-II data investigation, Chairman Pai said, “Oh, boy, that’s a double hypothetical! I mean, not just the merger, the merits of which I can’t talk about, but also the impact that a concurrent enforcement investigation might have on any merger. Again, I haven’t announced the identities of any carriers that we might be investigating, so I can’t obviously opine about what impact that may or may not have on the transaction that’s pending.”
Mr. Pai was also asked whether the FCC’s new Office of Economics and Analytics will make its work public. Chairman Pai said, “Generally speaking, the advice that economists and lawyers and engineers give to the agency are the classic internal deliberations. If they publish a study as such, that might be one thing. But the typical work they do is sitting around trying to hash through, for example, a PowerPoint or an Excel spreadsheet or something like. That’s the kind of thing I would imagine us doing together in the time to come.”
“The Communicators” moderator Peter Slen asked whether the FCC plans for repurposing more spectrum for broadband use includes “the C-band, a band that C-SPAN and a lot of broadcasters use” as customers of fixed-satellite service providers.
“That is one of the proceedings that we’re looking at. In fact the comment cycle recently closed on that, and I hope C-SPAN filed. If not, we should talk after this is over,” Chairman Pai joked. “But we do want to make an informed judgment about what is the optimal use of that 500 megahertz [of spectrum at 3.7-4.2 gigahertz] and we look forward to studying the record and seeing what the best course forward is.”
Asked about the timing of availability of the C-band as well as the 3.5 GHz band, he said, “There’s no particular time frame that I can identify today. Unfortunately, we have to work through for each of these bands a lot of very complicated issues. On C-band, for example, we need to study the record to make an informed decision, and that’s not going to be easy to do. With respect to 6 GHz, I’m really proud that a couple of months ago we were able to tee up some different ideas for making some of it available — a massive amount of spectrum available for unlicensed innovation, and I hope that at some point in 2019, we’d be able to make some progress on that.”
In response to a question about whether it still makes sense to continue with the multi-phase plan for testing the coexistence of Wi-Fi devices with dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) operations in the 5.9 GHz band given arguments that the technology has moved beyond DSRC, Chairman Pai said, “That’s one of the issues that I think the other agencies and the FCC will have to figure out. There has been an argument on one side that the technology has been bypassed with C-V2X [cellular vehicle-to-everything] and other technologies, others have argued that the entire band should be reallocated for essentially 802.11ac-based Wi-Fi. That’s one of the things that we’ll have to figure out.”
Asked whether the FCC remains relevant in face of consolidation across the telecom, Internet, and media sectors, Chairman Pai said, “So this is one of the things that I’ve consistently said from my first days at the Commission back in 2012. We need to get the denominator right. What I mean by that is figure out the full scope of competition in every one of these marketplaces. I think if you were to tell the average person under 25 or 30, for example, ‘Yes, the FCC considers the marketplace for information, shall we say, to be solely newspapers, broadcast TV stations, broadcast radio stations,’ they would look at you as though, ‘Have you not heard of this thing called the Internet?’ Well, technically speaking, our rules don’t take into account some of the effects of the Internet. And so that’s one of the reasons why we want to make sure we have an intellectually honest discussion about what is competition in this marketplace? Where, for example, do we see the impact of digital advertising on broadcasters and the like? That’s the kind of thing we want to encourage a conversation about, because, ultimately, the FCC’s rules cannot reflect the marketplace of 2018 if the marketplace conception that we’ve created for ourselves is one that’s based on 1996 or 1975.”
Finally, asked whether he has ruled out a run for political office after leaving the Commission, Chairman Pai said, “I am very focused on doing the best job I can in this position. It has been the privilege of a lifetime to serve at the FCC. If you were to go back and tell the dorky, awkward, shy 15-year-old sitting in a Parsons High School room that 30 years from now the president of the United States is going to tap you to lead this important federal agency, he would have been thrilled — he would never have believed you, but he would have been thrilled at the possibility that this could happen. So to me, I take every day as a blessing to be able to serve in this job, to be able to work on these issues, to be able to visit different parts of the country, to be able to serve the American people, and I’m going to give it my all, you know, for the next two years.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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