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New Approaches to Broadband – Wireline, Licensed, and Unlicensed

by: Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman

April 2, 2014 - 08:18 PM

Earlier this week, the Commission approved two items that use innovative approaches to free up spectrum for broadband. One order utilizes spectrum sharing in the AWS-3 band to make airwaves currently used by government available for flexible, commercial use. Another order is taking 100 MHz of unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band that was barely usable – and not usable at all outdoors – and transforming it into space that is fully usable for Wi-Fi.

Building on this work, the theme of the Commission’s April 23rd open meeting agenda will be “New Approaches to Broadband – Wireline, Licensed, and Unlicensed.”

As evidenced by this week’s AWS-3 order, spectrum sharing is a potentially revolutionary new approach that will allow us to derive greater value from the finite spectrum resource. For consideration at our April open meeting, I am circulating proposed rules today that are designed to make the 3.5 GHz band a test-bed for spectrum-sharing innovation.

The proposal includes three tiers of prioritization: federal and non-federal incumbents, priority access licensees, and general authorized access users.

It includes a single, highly flexible band plan, avoiding the analog trap of Balkanizing spectrum into sub-bands, each with its own sets of rules.

The proposal also anticipates a wide range of flexible uses. Small cells will undoubtedly be a core use case, but we would not limit the band to such use.

Finally, the proposal reflects economic incentives. Even with the most efficient technology, there will always be places and times where there is rivalry for spectrum access. To that end, the proposal would set up a flexible auction and licensing scheme that leverages the technical capabilities of a Spectrum Access System (SAS) database. The SAS is like a traffic cop for spectrum in that it can assess what spectrum is available so that it can be accessed by prioritized users.

We are committed not only to freeing up spectrum to ensure every American has access to robust wireless networks, but also to taking the necessary steps to support the widespread deployment of broadband through our universal service program. This promise of universal service is central to the Network Compact and the Commission’s core responsibilities under the Communications Act. But, today, millions of Americans still do not have access to high-speed broadband networks.

Chairman Genachowski took a number of important steps to help align the goal of our universal service programs with the realities of 21st century network technologies and markets. None was more important than the adoption of the landmark, unanimous 2011 USF/ICC Transformation Order, which established the Connect America Fund (CAF) – the largest broadband infrastructure program ever established.

Phase I of the Connect America Fund has already provided more than $430 million to leverage tens of millions in additional private investment to deploy broadband to more than 1.6 million unserved Americans in 45 states. To put this into perspective, this reduces by about 10 percent the number of Americans without access to broadband.

We must continue to move forward with the implementation of the CAF Phase II process, even as we reexamine our approach in light of marketplace and technological developments. Today, I’m circulating an item for consideration at our April meeting that does both.

For example, to ensure that we are supporting “reasonably comparable” services for rural Americans, the item would ask about moving the data speed benchmark to something closer to what most broadband users today enjoy. Yesterday’s broadband speeds are not the speeds of today. We will ask the question about increasing the speed so that rural consumers aren’t stuck with slower speeds than their urban cousins.

The item also moves forward on reforms for rate-of-return carriers. In particular, the item would eliminate the Quantile Regression Analysis benchmarks rule, which placed limits on the expenses that would be eligible for reimbursement from USF. Although well-intentioned, it was not having the desired effect. In its place, the item will seek comment on other potential support mechanisms for rate-of-return carriers that meet our goal of encouraging investment in 21st century networks in a fiscally responsible way – a “Connect America Fund” for rate-of-return carriers.

Collectively, the two items I’m circulating today for consideration at our April open meeting will advance new strategies to connect U.S. consumers to world-leading wired and wireless broadband networks. I look forward to working with my fellow Commissions and all interested stakeholders as we move forward with this process.

Updated: April 2, 2014 - 08:18 PM
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