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Blog Posts by Tom Wheeler

Working Together to Close the Rural Digital Divide

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
April 17, 2015 - 02:32 PM

Over the last few years, the FCC has made significant progress modernizing its universal service programs to make broadband available to all Americans. Importantly, the FCC in 2011 unanimously voted to transform the USF high-cost program for the large “price cap” carriers into the Connect America program, which supports rural broadband networks. This program is now moving into its second phase, in which $1.8 billion will soon be offered to expand broadband in price cap areas where deployment would not occur absent subsidies.

At the same time, however, another part of the universal service program that provides $2 billion annually in support for smaller rural carriers – called rate-of-return carriers – requires modernization. Senator Thune rightly recognizes this fact, and my colleagues and I recently made a commitment to him to take action on this issue by the end of this year. Modernization would ensure that this program reflects the realities of today’s marketplace and supports the deployment of broadband networks throughout rural America. We started this process last April when the Commission unanimously adopted a Further Notice that set forth the principles to guide our efforts in modernizing this program. Yesterday, we took another important step as my staff, Commissioner O’Rielly and his staff, Commissioner Clyburn’s staff, and staff from the Wireline Competition Bureau met with associations and others representing rate-of-return carriers to ask for their creative cooperation in getting this job done for rural consumers. I share Commissioner O’Rielly’s vision that we can get this done if we are prepared to roll up our sleeves and work together.

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Direct Video Communication: Access for People who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Speech Disabled in an IP World

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
April 14, 2015 - 02:27 PM

A few months ago, I received a note from a woman in New Mexico, recounting her recent experience in making a 911 call. She had fallen in her home, alone, badly hurt and bleeding.  She dialed 911, reached an emergency center, an ambulance was dispatched and she was taken to a medical facility.

You might be wondering why someone would write to the Chairman of the FCC about a 911 call. The reason is that this was an emergency for someone who is deaf and the call was made through Video Relay Service (VRS), a program administered by the FCC. The woman had never before had a reason to make an emergency call and, when she made the call, she wondered whether the technology would work.

Most of us take for granted that when we make a phone call, the call goes through. You call from any type of device to any phone number. You don’t think about how the call travels – via circuit or packet, time division or code division, copper or fiber, 1.9 GHz or 700 MHz Networks are interconnected. Telecommunications software is increasingly interoperable.  

Now, imagine that you hear with your eyes. You contact friends and family by video calling and your native language is American Sign Language (ASL).  And when you call a hearing person who does not speak your language, the call is automatically routed over the Internet through a VRS sign language interpreter who conveys what you want to communicate to the hearing person.  The VRS interpreter voices everything you sign to the hearing person and signs back everything that the hearing person says.  

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Let’s Move on Updating the AM Radio Rules

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
April 13, 2015 - 11:04 AM

During her impressive tenure as Acting Chairwoman, Commissioner Clyburn kicked off an important proceeding asking what the Commission should do to keep AM radio thriving.   The so-called AM Radio Revitalization NPRM started an important dialogue on the future of the AM band.  I am committed to taking action in this proceeding so that AM radio will flourish while also preserving the values of competition, diversity, and localism that have long been the heart and soul of broadcasting.

As the oldest broadcasting service, AM radio has been a vital part of American culture for decades and today remains an important source of broadcast programming, particularly for local content. In fact, Americans turn to the AM dial for a majority of all news and talk stations.

However, AM radio stations currently face unique technological challenges that limit their ability to best serve their listeners. In some cases, outdated regulations make it difficult for AM stations to overcome these issues. In other cases, interference concerns that are unique to AM stations are an obstacle.

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Innovation in the 3.5 GHz Band: Creating a New Citizens Broadband Radio Service

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
March 27, 2015 - 03:51 PM

Five years ago, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration issued a report identifying possible spectrum bands for reallocation for commercial uses. In the report, it identified the 3550-3650 MHz band as a potential opportunity for future commercial use. At the time, there was relatively little commercial interest in this band. But some saw an opportunity to promote new wireless technologies, new business ideas, and new spectrum management techniques to increase our nation’s broadband capacity. Today I circulated to my colleagues a draft Report and Order that will seize that opportunity by creating a new Citizens Broadband Radio Service.

The 3.5 GHz band is an innovation band. As a result of technological innovations and new focus on spectrum sharing, we can combine it with adjacent spectrum to create a 150 megahertz contiguous band previously unavailable for commercial uses. It provides an opportunity to try new innovations in spectrum licensing and access schemes to meet the needs of a multiplicity of users, simultaneously. And, crucially, we can do all of this in a way that does not harm important federal missions.

The draft Report and Order implements a three-tiered sharing paradigm, which we have explored in multiple rounds of notice and comment over the past two years. The lowest tier in the hierarchy, General Authorized Access (GAA), is open to anyone with an FCC-certified device. Much like unlicensed bands, GAA will provide for zero-cost access to the spectrum by commercial broadband users. In the Priority Access tier, users of the band can acquire at auction targeted, short-duration licenses that provide interference protection from GAA users. Finally, at the top of the hierarchy, incumbent federal and commercial radar, satellite, and other users will receive protection from all Citizens Broadband Service users.

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Good News for Consumers, Innovators and Financial Markets

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
February 26, 2015 - 12:05 PM

Thank you to the over four million Americans who participated in the Open Internet proceeding. Thanks to them, this decision on Internet openness was itself the most open proceeding in the history of the FCC.

As a result, the FCC today has taken an important step that should reassure consumers, innovators and the financial markets about the broadband future of our nation.

Consumers now know that lawful content will not be blocked or their service throttled. Today’s action puts in place bright line rules to ban these practices outright.

Innovators now know they will have open access to consumers without worrying about pay-for-preference fast lanes. This, too, is a bright line rule to ban paid prioritization.

Financial markets now know that rate regulation, tariffing and forced unbundling – the old-style utility regulation – has been superseded by a modernized regulatory approach that has already been demonstrated to work. The rules under which the wireless industry invested $300 billion to build a vibrant and growing business are the pro-investment model for the rules we adopted today.

The future of the Internet does not reside in backward-looking regulation from another era. There are 48 sections of Title II of the Communications Act. The modern regulatory approach we adopted today cuts away 27 of those provisions (even more than were removed for mobile voice service) to establish the above-mentioned bright line regulations for issues that exist today, and to apply the well-known “just and reasonable” standard as the rule for Internet activity going forward.

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The 'Wonders' of Video Description Technology

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
February 13, 2015 - 01:47 PM

A few months ago, Stevie Wonder visited the FCC to talk about how we can harness the power of technology to make performance art more accessible.  At that time, I discovered that Mr. Wonder would be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.  When he urged the FCC to raise awareness about and availability of audio description of video programming, I thought the Grammy special would be a wonderful showcase.

On February 16, 2015, thanks to the leadership of CBS CEO Les Moonves, CBS will use video description on its broadcast of "Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life - an All-Star GRAMMY Salute." It is the first time video description has ever been used for a musical performance program. 

If you're unfamiliar with video description technology, it's a feature that allows consumers who are blind or visually impaired to listen to an audio track describing a video program's visual elements when there is no audio accompanying those elements.  The audio describes non-verbal actions taking place on the screen, such as a body language, scene changes, setting, visual jokes, costumes or other content.  People who can see take for granted these silent but essential aspects of programming, but, without video description, people who are blind miss them.

Many popular television programs today offer video description services, including Fox's "Bones," NBC's "Grimm," PBS's "Downton Abbey," Nickelodeon's "Go Diego Go, " USA's "Royal Pains," and many more. You can experience what video description offers to the public by watching this video clip.

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Back to Basics: Promoting Public Safety and Protecting Consumers

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
January 8, 2015 - 04:16 PM

This week, I’ve been at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas getting a sneak peak at the very latest gadgets and innovations. Enabling new technologies that delight consumers and grow our economy is one of the FCC’s top priorities. While the hottest tech trends may garner the headlines, an equally important part of the FCC’s mission is basic consumer protections. The Commission’s first open meeting of 2015 will be focused on two core responsibilities: promoting public safety and serving as an effective, accessible advocate for consumers.

Since I arrived at the Commission, one of our top public safety priorities has been improving the effectiveness of 911.  A particular area of attention has been to improve location accuracy for indoor wireless 911 calls.

When the FCC adopted its original wireless 911 rules, most wireless usage occurred outdoors. But times have changed, and so has technology. The vast majority of 911 calls now come from wireless phones, increasingly from indoors.

That is why the Commission put forth proposed new location accuracy rules last year.

The record in the proceeding tells us that there have been significant advances in technology, including technologies that have the potential to locate indoor callers by address, floor, and apartment or room number. 

The Commission has studied this problem in depth, and with public safety stakeholders, has developed a mature understanding of the range of credible options.

The four largest wireless carriers and two national public safety organizations recently submitted their own proposed “roadmap,” a novel approach that has the potential to close the readiness gap through use of known locations of indoor wireless nodes.  This approach will ultimately result in capabilities that will evolve with the continued change anticipated in the number of ways consumers might call for help in the future.

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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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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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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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