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Blog Posts by Tom Wheeler

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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Reflections on this week's ITU discussions

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
October 24, 2014 - 11:24 AM

Every four years, the International Telecommunication Union holds a Plenipotentiary Conference to address the strategic direction of the ITU on telecommunications issues. I have just spent several days in Busan, Korea at this year's conference, working side by side with other USG officials, including head of delegation Ambassador Danny Sepulveda from the State Department, Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling from NTIA, Assistant Secretary Andy Ozment from DHS, and my colleague from the FCC, Commissioner Mike O'Rielly.

Together, we held a series of bilateral meetings with delegations from other countries on the important work of the conference, seeking to ensure the international community helps to provide development and capacity-building assistance to countries on important issues like infrastructure deployment and cybersecurity. Regulatory issues were hot topics in many of these meetings, as well as in a number of FCC bilateral meetings with our counterparts from independent regulators and telecom ministries.

I came away from these meetings with a few key points.  First, virtually every regulator emphasized how important it is to get broadband to rural and remote areas of their countries - to promote economic development, education and effective healthcare.  Not just connectivity, but broadband. They understand that broadband access can unlock the potential for individuals to prosper in their local communities instead of migrating to urban centers in search of a better quality of life.

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Meeting the Mobile Moment

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
September 26, 2014 - 10:59 AM

Last weekend’s record-setting launch of the new iPhone is just the latest reminder that our appetite for new mobile technologies appears to be insatiable. And this continuous cycle of mobile innovation is not only delighting U.S. consumers, it’s a major force in driving economic growth, boosting U.S. competitiveness, and enabling solutions to challenges like education and health care.

Seizing the opportunities of mobile innovation is one of the FCC’s highest priorities. Our mobile agenda rests on three pillars: making more spectrum available for broadband; using the market and technology to ensure more efficient and effective use of our spectrum; and promoting the deployment of mobile infrastructure. Today, I’m circulating to my colleagues a series of proposals that would advance each of these goals.

High-speed mobile broadband requires high-speed broadband buildout. However, the regulatory burdens associated with deployments can be expensive and time-consuming. We have to fix that.

For that reason, I circulated an item today that takes concrete steps to immediately and substantially ease the burdens associated with deploying wireless equipment.

The draft order recognizes that a technological revolution with regard to infrastructure deployment has changed the landscape. New Distributed Antenna System (DAS) networks and other small-cell systems use components that are a fraction of the size of traditional macrocells and can be installed – unobtrusively – on utility poles, buildings, and other existing structures.

The draft order accounts for that change by crafting a far more efficient process for small deployments that do not trigger concerns about environmental protection or historic preservation.

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Talking Tech in the Cradle of Liberty

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
September 22, 2014 - 05:27 PM

Two-hundred twenty-seven years ago this week, the U.S. Constitution was ratified in Philadelphia, establishing our system of government and enshrining a vision of a more perfect Union that still guides us today. Part of that vision was the belief that promoting communications promotes a healthy democracy. The Constitution established the Postal Office, in part to help subsidize the press and to facilitate the distribution of news and information to the American people.

Today, I spent the day in Philadelphia and saw just the latest evidence that, while the technology has changed, our Founding Fathers’ insight into the importance of communications to our democracy’s health remains evergreen.

I met with local leaders who explained how people in their communities needed access to modern communications not only to stay informed, but also to find jobs, to further their education, and to and engage with their elected leaders.

I visited Philadelphia’s Free Library, which serves a community on-ramp to the world of information, especially for children and for people on fixed incomes. And, increasingly, this information is not found in books but on the Internet. Philadelphia residents who don’t have computers are visiting the Free Library to get online. And area students visit the library after school to use the computers to help complete their homework assignments.

The FCC’s E-Rate program has helped ensure that libraries and schools across America have Internet connectivity. This past July, the Commission approved the first major modernization of the E-Rate program since it was established 18 years ago. These reforms will substantially increase funding available to support Wi-Fi connectivity in libraries and schools, will make the program more user-friendly for libraries, and will increase efficiencies to make E-Rate dollars go farther.

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Updating Old Policies; Pioneering New Ones

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
September 9, 2014 - 01:38 PM

Since becoming Chairman, I’ve spoken often about the importance of reviewing the FCC’s rules and processes, and eliminating or modernizing outdated practices that no longer make sense. There is no better example of an FCC rule that has outlived its usefulness and deserves to be eliminated than our sports blackout rule.

In 1975, the Commission enacted rules barring cable from airing a game that has been blacked out on the local television station because it was not sold out – strengthening the NFL’s blackout policy. Today, the rules make no sense at all.   

The sports blackout rules are a bad hangover from the days when barely 40 percent of games sold out and gate receipts were the league’s principal source of revenue.  Last weekend, every single game was sold out. More significantly, pro football is now the most popular content on television. NFL games dominated last week’s ratings, and the Super Bowl has effectively become a national holiday. With the NFL’s incredible popularity, it’s not surprising that last year the League made $10 billion in revenue and only two games were blacked-out.

Clearly, the NFL no longer needs the government’s help to remain viable. And we at the FCC shouldn’t be complicit in preventing sports fans from watching their favorite teams on TV. It’s time to sack the sports blackout rule.

That’s why today, I am sending to my fellow commissioners a proposal to get rid of the FCC’s blackout rule once and for all. It fulfills a commitment I made in June. We will vote on the proposal at the Commission’s open meeting on September 30. 

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Updating FCC Policies and Processes

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
July 18, 2014 - 01:53 PM

The American economy is dynamic and innovative, which is critical for sustained economic growth. The FCC is tasked with overseeing broadband and other communications networks. We must be as agile as the communications sector, as well as protect consumers. Both goals will be served in the items I circulate today for our August meeting.

First, we must ensure that consumers can continue to rely on 911, even as the technologies and platforms we use to communicate evolve.

This past April, we saw a large-scale 911 outage centered in Washington state, where more than 4,500 911 calls did not get through during one six-hour period. The FCC launched an investigation in to these outages in May, and the investigation is ongoing. Initial reports suggest that this outage appears to be a case where the transition to new networks may have been managed poorly and providers in the 911 ecosystem are not operating in a manner that is transparent to system users, regulators and each other.

Let me be plain – no company will be allowed to hang up on 911.

Admiral David Simpson, the head of our Public Safety Bureau, delivered this message to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners earlier this week. He was clear -- incumbent providers that have taken a responsibility for making 911 work have also undertaken a public trust that cannot be compromised.  It will never be acceptable to tell anyone they can’t connect to 911 because of “innovation in the cloud” or a new business model, or because a new communications function has superseded carrier responsibility.  The bottom line is 911 must be preserved and improved.

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The Need to Modernize the FCC’s IT Systems

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
July 16, 2014 - 04:46 PM

It’s wonderful that more than 900,000 Americans have expressed their opinions in the first round of Open Internet comments. The Commission’s decision to extend until Friday the period for public comments on the Open Internet proceeding reflects both the public’s interest in the topic as well as the antiquated IT capabilities of the agency that have not been able to handle the surge of comments.

The FCC has been forced by budget restrictions to operate with an IT infrastructure that would be unacceptable to any well-managed business.  Efforts to upgrade this IT capability were a casualty of sequestration. Most recently, the agency requested of Congress approximately $13 million for IT upgrades in the FY 2015 appropriation. I appreciate that the Senate subcommittee has provided the Commission with full funding in its FY 2015 spending bill, so that we can make these important upgrades.   Unfortunately, the appropriations bill passed by the House today would fund the FCC at $17 million below current levels and $53 million below our overall budget request, dramatically undermining any effort to modernize our IT systems.

The ability to improve the FCC’s internal procedures – an important priority for Congress – will be hurt without 21st Century IT infrastructure.

The ability of the public to communicate with their government has – as we have seen – already has been hurt by the inability of the FCC to receive all of their comments without complication.

The ability of those companies the FCC regulates to express their views is similarly hurt by an infrastructure none of them would tolerate in their own companies, even though their fees pay for the FCC budget without touching tax dollars.

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New Opportunities in New Mexico’s Indian Country

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
June 30, 2014 - 02:04 PM

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of visiting the Pueblo of Acoma in central New Mexico along with Senator Tom Udall, my second visit to Indian Country in 2014.  I saw buildings carved out of the earth by hand in the 17th Century, and also met with community leaders focused on unlocking the digital opportunities of the 21st Century.

I had enlightening discussions with Tribal leaders on the economic development opportunities that come with enhanced communications access.  The conversations brought home the heightened importance for Tribal communities of so many issues before the FCC.

Acoma illustrates the power of communications technology to overcome geographic isolation and put a world of information and economic opportunity at the fingertips of citizens in even the most remote communities.

It also demonstrates how we still have a digital divide in this country, with rural communities, and especially Native Americans, disproportionately on the wrong side, getting bypassed by the Internet revolution.

Acoma is located in Cibola County, where nearly half of residents (45%) don’t even have access to 3 Mbps broadband, which is less than what’s recommended to stream HD video without problems. Barely 10 % have access to 10 Mbps broadband. We must do better.

In communities like Acoma with low broadband access rates, the local library is often a digital lifeline for area residents. That’s certainly true of Acoma.

I visited the Acoma Learning Center – the town library, which has a computer lab with 10 desktops. Area adults rely on the Learning Center’s computer lab to look up information on everything from jobs to health care, and children use these computers for help with their homework after school.

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