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Access and Public Safety: Enduring Elements of the Public Interest.

by: Tom Wheeler, Chairman

January 30, 2014

Technology and networks are rapidly changing. We support technological innovation, but our challenge is preserving the values that consumers and businesses have come to expect from their networks – universal access, public safety, competition, and consumer protection. That’s why earlier today, the Commission launched a broad set of voluntary experiments meant to ensure that the nation’s communications networks continue to provide the services consumers want and need as users and companies transition from plain old telephone service delivered over copper lines to wireless devices or other voice services using Internet Protocols, delivered over coaxial cable, fiber, or wireless networks.

The Commission also took a critical step to ensure wireless consumers will be able to reach 911 via text messaging – a capability that is critical and potentially life-saving for Americans who are hard-of-hearing.

Our mission is to ensure that as network providers and their customers upgrade to new technologies, there is no downgrade in reliability, availability, public safety, and competition.

The agenda for the Commission’s February meeting builds on this belief that there are values that define our networks that must be preserved, and it is united by a central theme: Access and Public Safety: Enduring Elements of the Public Interest.

There is no better example than the way that wireless phones have become one of, if not the, primary means by which many Americans communicate and what that means for ensuring public safety.

When the original 911 rules for wireless providers were first adopted, they were built on the assumption that the primary place consumers would use their wireless phones would be outside. But today, the vast majority of wireless calls are made from indoors, including 911 calls made from wireless phones. Commercial location-based services are raising consumers’ expectations – if a smartphone app can locate them within seconds, why can’t a 911 call center?

In light of these changes, our rules have to change. Today I’m placing on circulation an item that would make clear that wireless providers have to meet certain benchmarks for indoor location accuracy and proposes other changes to ensure that wireless providers are taking the appropriate steps to deliver accurate location information to 911 call centers.

When we talk of values that must define our communications, none is more fundamental than universal access. Our definition of “universal” has been one of word, not of deed, with respect to the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. For too long, deaf and hard-of-hearing communities’ access has been less than equal. Reliable and consistent access to news and information is a right, not a suggestion.

While some video programming distributors established effective quality control mechanisms, quality closed captioning has not been an across-the-board reality.

The Commission has been working closely with leadership of the broadcasting, cable, and production industries, along with consumer groups, on ways to improve closed captioning and ensure access to video programming. February’s Open Meeting agenda will include measures to enhance this vital service.

Ensuring universal access to communications and promoting public safety are critical to the FCC’s statutory obligation to serve the public interest. I’m pleased that the Commission continues to take steps forward to advance its vital mission.

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