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Closing the Digital Divide in Rural America

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
November 20, 2014 - 03:39 PM

High-speed Internet access has become fundamental to modern life, whether we’re on the job, at home, or going to school. Broadband connectivity can overcome geographic isolation and put a world of information and economic opportunity at the fingertips of citizens in even the most remote communities. But the hard truth is there is a digital divide that particularly impacts rural America.

Americans living in urban areas are three times more likely to have access to Next Generation broadband than Americans in rural areas. An estimated 15 million Americans, primarily in rural communities, don’t even have access to entry-level broadband in their homes. Forty-one percent of American’s rural schools couldn’t get a high-speed connection if they tried.

The FCC can play an important role in bridging these gaps, and today, I’m circulating two items that will expand access to robust broadband across rural America.

Bringing High-Speed Broadband to Rural Schools and Libraries

One proposal would close the digital divide in rural schools and libraries by modernizing the FCC’s E-rate program. Since 1997, the program has helped connect schools and libraries to the Internet, but it’s falling short of delivering the bandwidth required for 21st Century learning. That’s particularly true in rural America, where 41% of schools lack access to the fast fiber connections required compared to 31% in urban areas.

Why does this Rural Fiber Gap exist? Fiber connection costs are much higher for rural schools and libraries. As a result, either there is no fiber, or that level of connectivity is only available at an unreasonably high price. It may not be unusual, but it is unacceptable that these realities are allowed to hurt students.

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Lessons of the 2014 Plenipot

by Michael O'Rielly, FCC Commissioner
November 17, 2014 - 02:33 PM

Last month, I was honored to join FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler as part of the U.S. delegation to the 2014 International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference (Plenipot) held in Busan, South Korea.  Since the conference recently concluded, it seems the appropriate time to share my thoughts about this experience.  Before doing so, however, I must express my deep appreciation to the head of the delegation, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda of the Department of State, the FCC staff, the members of the U.S. delegation, and all dignitaries with whom I was able to meet, including the newly-elected Secretary-General of the ITU, Mr. Houlin Zhao of China, and Deputy Secretary-General, Mr. Malcom Johnson of the United Kingdom. 

As a member of the delegation, I attended the official plenary meetings of the conference, which included the elections for various ITU positions and discussions of various resolutions, and joined U.S.-led bilateral meetings with representatives of countries present at the Plenipot, including Germany and Chile.  I attended meetings with a subset of our delegation to discuss U.S. positions on specific issues (e.g., cybersecurity and Internet governance).  In addition, I participated in a number of FCC-led bilateral meetings with officials from the regulatory agencies of other countries, including Pakistan, Lebanon, Ghana, Australia and Guinea-Bissau.  These meetings put into perspective the high standing that the FCC has internationally, and I was able to share the Commission’s pro-market approach to spectrum auctions, unlicensed spectrum, broadband deployment, and many other issues. 

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Taking the Next Step in E-rate Modernization

by Jon Wilkins, Managing Director
November 17, 2014 - 11:52 AM

Today, Chairman Wheeler announced that he will be circulating a draft order to his fellow Commissioners for consideration at the December Commission Meeting to take the next step in his comprehensive effort to modernize the E-rate program. If you recall, the Commission adopted an Order in July to make the program more efficient and transparent so that schools get the most bang for their E-rate buck. At the same time, the Commission moved to close the Wi-Fi gap by targeting $1 billion annually to expand Wi-Fi connections in all the nation’s schools and libraries to support modern digital learning. As significant a step as that was, the Commission was able to accomplish this without increasing E-rate’s $2.4 billion cap by phasing down support for legacy services which will save an estimated $3.5 billion over five years, funds that can be redeployed for broadband services. 

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Taking Broadcaster Outreach on the Road

by Howard Symons, Vice Chair of the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force
November 13, 2014 - 09:39 AM

Last month marked a major milestone in our ongoing effort to educate broadcasters about the opportunities afford by the first-ever incentive auction. We sent an information package, prepared by the investment banking firm Greenhill and Co. for the FCC, to the owners of every station eligible to participate in the auction. The package explained the unparalleled business opportunity and for the first time gave broadcasters high end estimates of compensation for relinquishing spectrum usage rights. In just the few weeks since we released the package, numerous broadcasters have reached out to learn more about the auction.

Building on the momentum generated by the information package, we are poised to begin the next phase of our outreach. FCC staff, again advised by Greenhill, will continue the dialogue with broadcasters in field visits to television markets around the country. We are currently planning more than a dozen trips that will cover about 50 markets between January and April 2015 (see list below). The field visits will include town hall meetings during which we will explain the opportunities presented by the auction and address questions that have been raised by broadcasters in the weeks since the Greenhill information package release. We will also provide further detail about opening bid prices and different participation options such as channel sharing, moving from a UHF channel to a VHF channel and moving from a high VHF channel to a lower one. Additionally, we will meet confidentially one-on-one with individual broadcasters who express an interest in learning more.

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The Broadband Health Imperative

by Dr. Chris Gibbons, FCC Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Connect2HealthFCC Task Force
November 10, 2014 - 04:18 PM

For almost a decade and a half, as an Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute, it has been my responsibility to work on one of the most challenging problems in healthcare − improving population health.  My work has taken me from the so-called “ivory tower” of Johns Hopkins to the homes, alleys and communities of inner city East Baltimore. 

Through my experiences, I’ve realized that despite the U.S. having an amazing healthcare system, it was doing little to reduce the endless flow of patients coming into emergency rooms and hospitals for care. We could treat many physical and psychological ailments, but we were often powerless to provide the support patients and families needed to manage their chronic diseases or truly live “well”.

We were powerless not because we could not see what was needed nor because we did not care; rather, as the infographic below suggests, there were too many people that needed treatment and not enough providers to meet their needs.  We were taught as medical students to focus on tests, diagnostics, therapies and treatments.  I, like many others, believed that if we could just give the best care to every patient, we would ultimately fix our nation’s health care problems.  But it isn’t that simple.

Consumers rely on many resources for their health – doctors, social services, nutritionists, pharmacies, caregivers and others.  When these “providers” remain unconnected, it is a prescription for frustration, burnout, high costs and suboptimal outcomes. 

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Introducing FCC Distinguished Health IT Scholar, Dr. Chris Gibbons

by P. Michele Ellison, Chair, Connect2HealthFCC Task Force
November 10, 2014 - 11:16 AM

The American scientist and inventor Edwin Land once said, “don't undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”  (You may recall that Land co-founded the Polaroid Corporation, which revolutionized instant photography.)

Connecting everyone, everywhere to the people, services and information they need to get healthy and stay well – the fundamental vision of the Connect2HealthFCC Task Force – is such a challenge.  It’s not impossible, in my view, but manifestly important to the health of our nation and the stability of our economy.  And, it’s not impossible if we continue to leverage the power of broadband and advanced technology tools.

Over the summer, the Task Force heard from a wide range of stakeholders in the broadband health space who agree that this is a challenge we must accept.  They’ve encouraged us to take the long view, pursuing tangible, near-term gains in accelerating broadband adoption and promoting health IT, but also thinking 10-15 years out so the Commission can stay ahead of the curve. 

An undertaking of this magnitude requires a multi-disciplinary approach and a broad range of stakeholder partners.  That’s why I’m pleased to introduce a key member of our team, Dr. Michael Chris Gibbons of Johns Hopkins University.  Dr. Gibbons serves as an FCC Distinguished Scholar in Residence, providing critical health IT, population health and data analytics heft to our team.  

Dr. Gibbons is a physician informatician, healthcare disparities and urban health expert whose academic research has focused on the use of technology and consumer health informatics to improve healthcare disparities.  He also received training in general surgery at Johns Hopkins, prior to completing a preventive medicine residency. 

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Technology Transitions: Consumers Matter Most

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
October 31, 2014 - 03:19 PM

This past January, the Commission unanimously adopted an order to speed technology transitions for the benefit of consumers.  How?  By assuring that technology transitions bring innovation while protecting the enduring values that consumers have come to expect from their networks, including public safety, consumer protection and competition.

The time has come to put those principles into practice. Today, I am circulating to my fellow Commissioners two items that take up the task of encouraging technology transitions while protecting those core values.

Tremendous benefits can be realized by the transition of public safety to IP-based networks. For example, IP-based networks will enable 911 call centers to receive a greater range of information – such as text, video, and data from vehicle crash sensors – to better support emergency response.

But the introduction of new technologies has also introduced new vulnerabilities that cannot be ignored. We have seen a spike in so-called “sunny day” outages, when failure comes from the failure of software or databases and not from natural disasters. As the Public Safety Bureau reported to the Commission earlier this month, a “sunny day” outage this past April left consumers in 7 states without 911 service for up to 6 hours.  Some 6,600 911 calls were not completed during that time.  This is simply unacceptable.

A single 911 call today can involve multiple companies operating in multiple locations across the country, and that means a failure in one place can leave people without 911 service across multiple states, indeed across the nation. 

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More Data: Pocket Dialing

by Michael O'Rielly, FCC Commissioner
October 30, 2014 - 04:25 PM

In response to my recent blog post regarding the harmful consumer practice of pocket dialing, I received a letter from Kelly Dutra, the Director of the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency (WCCCA) in Beaverton, Oregon.  The letter begins, “I read with interest the Business Week article ‘FCC Commissioner: Butt-Dialing is Taxing 9-1-1’ and let you know you are right on target.  They account for over 30% of our wireless 9-1-1 calls.  In 2005 we installed a system that all wireless calls must pass through to make it to a Calltaker.  The wireless 9-1-1 caller must speak or press any key for the system to recognize it as an actual call to be passed through.” 

Ms. Dutra continued, “I have attached a separate sheet showing numbers from 2012 to current. I’ve also been studying the number of butt calls that make it through the system we just began including in our weekly, monthly, and annual reports.  The device we have in place blocks on average 30% but another 15-20% of the calls that make it through the system are still butt dials with enough noise in the background for the system to treat it as an active call.”

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Learning from the Rural Broadband Experiments

by Carol Mattey, Deputy Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau
October 29, 2014 - 01:39 PM

Last week, the Wireline Competition Bureau opened the application filing window for parties interested in participating in the Commission’s rural broadband experiments.  Already we have seen activity in the online system we are using to accept the applications, with many entities working on their applications.   Interested parties have until 6 p.m. on Friday, November 7 to submit applications for this funding opportunity.     

The opening of the filing window marks a historic occasion.  For the first time, the Commission is using a competitive bidding process to award ongoing Connect America Fund support that will bring broadband to rural America.  Applicants have the opportunity to bid on $100 million in available funding through the rural broadband experiments, with defined criteria for the level of service we expect winning bidders to provide and an objective, clear-cut methodology for selecting winning applications.  

Already, we’ve learned a lot from these experiments:  working on the nitty-gritty details of the application form, doing outreach to get the word out to potential bidders, and getting the online system up and running.  Once the application window closes, we’ll be learning about competitive interest to build networks to rural communities that will deliver services that far exceed the Commission’s current performance standards.  And I’m sure we will learn something unexpected that will help the Commission make decisions regarding the design of the Phase II auction that will occur after the offer of model-based support to price cap carriers. 

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Tech Transitions, Video, and the Future

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
October 28, 2014 - 02:48 PM

Consumers have long complained about how their cable service forces them to buy channels they never watch.  The move of video onto the Internet can do something about that frustration – but first Internet video services need access to the programs.  Today the FCC takes the first step to open access to cable programs as well as local television.  The result should be to give consumers more alternatives from which to choose so they can buy the programs they want. 

In 1992 Congress realized that the then-nascent satellite industry would have a hard time competing because much cable programming was owned by cable companies who frequently kept it from competitors.  Congress mandated access to cable channels for satellite services, and competition flourished.  Today I am proposing to extend the same concept to the providers of linear, Internet-based services; to encourage new video alternatives by opening up access to content previously locked on cable channels.  What could these over-the-top video providers (OTTs) supply to consumers?  Many different kinds of multichannel video packages designed for different tastes and preferences.  A better ability for a consumer to order the channels he or she wants to watch.

So-called linear channels, which offer the viewer a prescheduled lineup of programs, have been the largely exclusive purview of over-the-air broadcasting, cable, and satellite TV.  But these kinds of packages of programming are coming to the Web as well.  DISH has said that it intends to launch an online service that may include smaller programming bundles. And it has already begun offering foreign language channels online.  Sony, DIRECTV, and Verizon are also in the hunt.  Recently, CBS announced a streaming service that includes linear channels, separate from cable subscriptions; and the new HBO service may as well.

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