A Jump-Start for Restoring Communications Networks in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands
FCC Blog by Ajit Pai
Hurricane Maria has had a catastrophic impact on communications networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The FCC has been doing a lot to assist with repair and restoration—and that work continues. That’s why I am proposing that the FCC use its Universal Service Fund to help with these efforts.
In normal times, this fund provides federal subsidies to companies to make communications services (voice and Internet) more accessible and affordable in places where the cost of providing service is high. Typically, companies get those subsidies on a month-by-month basis.
The devastation wrought by Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands requires us to think more creatively. So I’m asking my fellow commissioners to vote on an order that would provide carriers there up to seven months of their normal federal support in advance – right now, in a lump sum – to help them repair their networks and restore service to consumers. That would amount to a $76.9 million shot in the arm for network recovery and reconstruction. We also would give companies the flexibility they need to restore service as quickly and efficiently as possible. I hope my fellow commissioners will join me in helping to bring back connectivity to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands as soon as possible. But if this proposal has not been approved by the time of our October meeting, it will top our agenda on October 24.
Responding to natural disasters has consumed the bulk of the FCC’s time and attention this season. But there are other important areas under our jurisdiction, and we’ll cover some of them at our upcoming meeting on October 24.
For one thing, we’ll continue our efforts to protect public safety. Earlier this year, when Jewish Community Centers nationwide were receiving bomb threats, we issued an emergency temporary waiver allowing law enforcement to access blocked Caller ID information. Building on that waiver, I’m seeking a vote on an order that would permanently exempt threatening calls from our caller ID blocking rules. If you are transmitting bomb threats through phone calls, there is no legitimate reason for you to block your caller ID information. We would prevent abuse of this exemption by limiting access to blocked caller ID information to law enforcement and others responsible for the safety of the threatened party. This would give law enforcement information they need to quickly identify and thwart threatening callers, while still protecting the privacy of law-abiding citizens.
Speaking of phone numbers: they are often part of our identity. Consumers and businesses alike value their ability to keep a phone number when changing providers or relocating. This concept is called “number portability.” But complete nationwide portability doesn’t currently exist. That’s why, at our October meeting, we’ll vote on whether the FCC should explore modernizing its rules so that consumers and businesses can port their number to any carrier in any location. That could increase competition between carriers large and small – and let you keep that number you know and love wherever you go.
At our October meeting, we will also vote on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, developed under Commissioner O’Rielly’s leadership, addressing the 3.5 GHz band. When I became Chairman in January, I asked him to lead an effort to review the Commission’s rules for the 3.5 GHz band and study whether they could be improved to increase incentives for investment and encourage more efficient spectrum use. This NPRM is the result of his hard work. It seeks public input on several proposed changes to the licensing and technical rules in the band to ensure that we maintain U.S. leadership in the global race for 5G. (You can read Commissioner O’Rielly’s statement here.)
Making communications technology accessible to people with disabilities is an important part of the FCC’s mission, and at our October meeting, we’ll be voting on updating the standards governing the compatibility of phones with hearing aids. These rules would reflect the increased reliance by consumers on wireless devices and the standards for volume control developed by industry for both wireline and wireless handsets. Our rules need to keep pace with current technology so that Americans who use hearing aids can easily use phones.
And on the topic of updates: since March, the FCC has been considering whether it can streamline or even eliminate certain international reporting requirements. Along those lines, we’ll consider a draft order on October 24 determining that the annual Traffic and Revenue Reports we currently require carriers to file are no longer necessary in the increasingly competitive international services sector. However, it also finds that another report, known as the Circuit Capacity Report, still provides the FCC with information it needs related to national security and public safety (and I’m grateful to the Department of Homeland Security for expressing its views on this point). I’m therefore proposing to my colleagues that we keep that report, but streamline the information required to reduce reporting burdens and only collect what we need.
At our October meeting, we’ll also take another step toward the long-overdue modernization of rules governing the media industry. Following up on our Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in May, we’ll vote on an order that would eliminate the “main studio rule.” This rule requires each AM, FM, and TV broadcast station to maintain a main studio in or near its community of license. This requirement dates to 1939 and was enacted in part to ensure that stations would stay accessible and responsive to the public. But today, this rule is unnecessary; most consumers get in touch with stations over the phone or through electronic means, stations’ public inspection files are mostly online, and technology enables stations to produce local news without a nearby studio. Additionally, the rule can impose major costs on broadcasters. Eliminating it would make it easier for new broadcast stations to operate in small towns and rural communities. It would also allow broadcasters to spend money currently used to comply with the rule on local programming, newsgathering, and other activities to better serve the public.
Finally, I’m proposing to update two other rules affecting broadcasters. One rule requires TV stations to report annually to the FCC about their use of digital spectrum to offer ancillary services, in addition to free, over-the-air TV, even if they didn’t provide any such services during the year. I’m proposing to relax that requirement for broadcasters that don’t offer such services. And given changes in how Americans access information, I’m also proposing that the FCC solicit public input on updating rules requiring broadcast licensees to provide public notice of the filing of broadcast applications in newspapers and/or via over-the-air announcements.
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As you can see, it’ll be another busy month at the FCC. From helping restore communications networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to assisting law enforcement in investigating threatening phone calls, we’ll keep on working to advance the public interest.
Cross-posted on Wow! Magazine.