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Continuing Efforts to Measure and Report on Mobile Wireless Competition

by Roger C. Sherman, Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau
May 29, 2015 - 12:09 PM

The Communications Act requires the submission to Congress each year of reports analyzing the state of competition in the mobile wireless industry.

The Seventeenth Mobile Wireless Competition Report was released in December 2014. This report covered data from 2013 and the first half of 2014 and looked at factors such as market shares among providers, coverage, and pricing trends. When we released the Seventeenth Mobile Wireless Competition Report, we noted that we would update many of the charts and tables in that report when new data became available. 

Today, we are updating many of those charts and tables based on recently collected data relevant to competition in the mobile wireless industry. For example, we are providing information on total wireless connections by service segment; overall mobile voice and mobile broadband coverage; and provider-specific coverage. And, we have also added user-friendly interactive coverage maps. This mid-year update reflects our newly focused efforts to capture important details in the evolving mobile wireless marketplace. 

Among other things, the updated information shows: 

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A Lifeline for Low-Income Americans

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
May 28, 2015 - 01:25 PM

The Lifeline program was established in 1985 to help low-income Americans afford access to vital communications. Our nation’s enduring promise is opportunity for all, and helping financially struggling Americans access basic communications empowers individuals to pursue new opportunities and build better lives. This principle has remained constant since Lifeline’s inception. In 1996, Congress ratified the goal of access to advanced communications for low-income consumers in the Communications Act. Over a span of three decades, the program has helped tens of millions of Americans afford basic phone service. But as communications technologies and markets evolve, the Lifeline program also has to evolve to remain relevant.  As I told Congress earlier this year, it is time to overhaul Lifeline to make sure it is still performing the critical function for which it was formed.

Today, we take the first step in that process.  I am circulating new proposals to “reboot” Lifeline for the Internet age.

First, we propose to make Lifeline more efficient and impactful by establishing minimum standards of service for voice and broadband, so both beneficiaries and those who pay into the fund can know that they are getting the best value.

Broadband is key to Lifeline’s future. In 2015, broadband access is essential to find a job: more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 job openings are online. Americans need broadband to keep a job, as companies increasing require basic digital literacy skills. We rely on broadband to manage and receive healthcare, and to help our children do their homework. A 2012 study estimated that broadband helps a typical U.S. consumer saves $8,800 a year by providing access to bargains on goods and services.

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Another Win for Consumers

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
May 27, 2015 - 02:28 PM

Few things rankle consumers as much as unwanted calls and texts. Thanks to the passage of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, consumers can choose which calls they want and do not want. Yet, in order to maintain those protections, we must continue to close loopholes and empower consumers. The responsibility to protect consumers from robocalls that can be both costly and intrusive does not expire with changes in technology.

That's why I am proposing today the Commission crack down on robocalls, robotexts, and telemarketing calls – the number one source of consumer complaints at the FCC.

Last year alone, we received more than 215,000 complaints related to unwanted and intrusive calls and texts. The filer of one complaint detailed receiving 4,700 unwanted texts over a 6-month period. We've also seen reports of 27,809 unsolicited text messages over 17 months to one reassigned number, despite requests to stop the texts.

The Commission has received numerous petitions from companies – including bankers, debt collectors, app developers, retail stores, and others – seeking clarity on our consumer rules. I intend to use these petitions as an opportunity to empower consumers and curtail these intrusive communications.

I am proposing that the Commission rule on more than 20 pending petitions related to consumer protection and send one clear message: consumers have the right to control the calls and texts they receive, and the FCC is moving to enforce those rights and protect consumers against robocalls, spam texts, and telemarketing.

We will empower and protect consumers in a number of ways.

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Driving Lifeline Updates With Data

by Julie Veach, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau
May 22, 2015 - 01:10 PM

As you may know, Lifeline was launched in 1985 to help ensure that land line phone service was affordable for low-income consumers. Congress ratified the program in 1996 and codified the principle that low-income consumers should have access to "advanced telecommunications and information services." In 2008, as consumers snapped up cell phones, the FCC opened the door to Lifeline support for mobility – and then updated its rules in 2012 to protect against the waste, fraud and abuse. Having learned our lesson, in the same order that made huge steps in cleaning up mobile support, the Commission tried to think ahead about gathering the data to consider Lifeline support for broadband, which has become essential to modern life.

Specifically, the FCC launched the Low Income Broadband Pilot Program to study what policies might overcome the barriers to adoption of broadband by low-income households. I’m happy to say that the data are now in from these 14 varied pilots, and we’re releasing the data to the public for analysis, along with our own short report with a few immediate takeaways:

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Standing Down for Tower Climber Safety

May 15, 2015 - 05:11 PM

Over the past two weeks, millions of workers across the country have participated in a National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction.  This voluntary annual event, coordinated by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is an opportunity to take time out of busy work schedules for training to ensure the safety of those that work at heights and to prevent hazardous falls. 

In this year’s Safety Stand-Down, companies involved in tower climbing work across the country, from Texas to South Dakota, Michigan to Maine, New Jersey to New York and Pennsylvania to Florida, used the Safety Stand-Down as an opportunity to have dedicated training on safety.  We applaud the companies that participated and we encourage the entire tower climbing industry to refocus on safety given what is at stake. 

To put this in perspective, let’s take a look at the numbers.  According to OSHA, there were 12 fatalities in 2014 involving work on communications towers, following 14 fatalities in 2013.  Although the trend line in fatalities is currently declining, one fatality is one fatality too many. 

For our part, the FCC has been working with a variety of parties to improve tower climber safety.  Last October, the FCC and OSHA jointly hosted a widely attended workshop at FCC Headquarters focused on tower climber safety, and announced the formation of a working group to encourage best practice adoption throughout the industry.  Our working group is continuing to work with stakeholders on publicizing practices that improve safety.

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Using Technology to Enhance Rail Safety

by Roger C. Sherman, Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau
May 15, 2015 - 09:46 AM

Like the rest of the nation, we are deeply saddened by this week’s fatal Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia. We send our condolences to the families of those who lost their loved ones and our gratitude to the first responders for their efforts.

As National Transportation Safety Board investigators seek answers to questions about the crash, some questions about Positive Train Control (PTC) have been raised.  I thought it would be helpful to explain what it is and give an overview of the FCC’s role in its implementation.

PTC systems are intended to reduce the risk of rail accidents caused by human error, such as derailments caused by excessive speed.   PTC technology is designed to enable real-time information sharing between trains, rail wayside devices, and control centers, which, for example, would notify a train engineer about dangerous speeds.   If an engineer does not reduce speeds to a safe level, the PTC system is designed to slow it down automatically to a safe level.

In 2008, Congress passed a law requiring Amtrak and other commuter and freight railroads to deploy interoperable PTC systems by December 31, 2015, but did not designate spectrum, a finite resource, for PTC use or make funds available for railroads to acquire access to spectrum. 

The Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration has primary authority to ensure PTC systems are activated and work properly.  As the nation’s communications agency, the FCC helps facilitate spectrum acquisition by freight and commuter trains. We also manage the mandatory historic preservation and environmental reviews of PTC system infrastructure.  

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Accountability for Enforcement Penalties & Fines

by Michael O'Rielly, FCC Commissioner
May 14, 2015 - 04:05 PM

The Commission’s enforcement procedures and actions have been receiving attention of late, but there is a deficiency in the process that has not been mentioned.  To the extent that the Commission has rules in an area, applicable parties are required to comply.  Those who don’t are subject to enforcement actions, with due process rights for alleged violators, including the option of settling the matter through a consent decree.  For the enforcement process to work, however, all of its steps must be carried out efficiently and swiftly from beginning to end.  One problem with the current process – and another area for the newly formed Process Review Task Force and/or Congress to examine – is that the Commission has no idea whether parties are actually satisfying the terms of its enforcement actions, particularly those that go to the forfeiture stage.         

Under the current structure, the Commission does not have a process in place to know whether entities actually pay the fines or penalties assessed pursuant to an enforcement action.  In other words, once a Forfeiture Order is finalized, it somehow seems to drop off the FCC’s radar.  This came as a surprise to me as I prepared for recent Congressional hearings.  I requested that Enforcement Bureau provide a detailed spreadsheet of the 75 most recent Notices of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) and Forfeiture Orders.  Disappointingly, the bureau answered that it didn’t track collections resulting from Forfeiture Orders as a matter of course. 

This whole situation reminds me of an early episode of the sitcom Seinfeld.  In it, Jerry has a dispute with a car rental agent over whether the car he reserved is actually available.  One of television’s most classic exchanges went as follows:

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If You Reform It, They Will Come

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
May 11, 2015 - 03:10 PM

E-rate is the nation's largest education technology program, and it has helped to ensure that almost every school and library in America has basic Internet connectivity. In the 18 years since E-rate was established, technology has evolved, the needs of students and teachers have changed, and basic connectivity has become insufficient. That's why, last year, the FCC took steps to reboot and modernize how we connect our schools, libraries – and most importantly, our students – to 21st century educational opportunity.

We improved the program's cost-effectiveness, set specific, ambitious goals for the broadband capacity delivered to schools and libraries – a short term target of 100 Mbps per 1000 students, and a longer term target of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students   – and re-purposed funding for Wi-Fi and robust broadband connections capable of supporting cutting-edge, one-to-one digital learning.

These reforms will only have their intended impact if schools and libraries step up to take advantage of new opportunities. Early indications are that they are up to the challenge.  Applications are in for E-rate funding for the coming school year, and schools and libraries have responded to the FCC's E-rate reforms by seeking a total of $3.9 billion in support, including more than $1.6 billion for internal Wi-Fi networks.

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The Accessible Technology Challenges Facing Millennials

by Jamal Mazrui , Director, FCC Accessibility and Innovation Initiative
May 6, 2015 - 03:13 PM

Last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced proposals to move the Commission forward on two important communications access issues for Americans with disabilities.  It is a primary objective of the Commission to strive toward better access to information and communication technology for people with disabilities.

To that end, the FCC recently cohosted a forum focused specifically on accessibility issues facing young adults with disabilities.  From this event, the Commission’s Accessibility and Innovation Initiative learned many lessons about the daily challenges facing this community.

The Community Forum on Accessible Information and Communication Technology was cohosted by the Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective and took place at the U.S. Access Board.  A panel of young adults with disabilities discussed their experiences regarding the accessibility of information and communication technologies. During the small group breakout sessions, students discussed the challenges they face. A representative from each group presented the top challenges discussed accompanied by proposed solutions.

A panel of young adults with disabilities shown discussing their experiences regarding the accessibility of information and communication technologies.

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Problems with FCC Advisory Committees

by Michael O'Rielly, FCC Commissioner
May 1, 2015 - 03:06 PM

Through this blog, I’ve raised quite a few issues with the current operations of the FCC, especially the workings of the so-called 8th Floor, and the critical need to improve transparency and accountability. Let me add another area in need of review and reform: the Commission’s advisory committees (and councils). Specifically, I believe changes are necessary in such areas as the appointment process, internal operations, work assignments, reporting requirements, staff involvement, and implementation of recommendations. In other words, a top-to-bottom examination and overhaul is in order.

Let me be clear: advisory committees can be a good thing – if established and used properly. Seeking outside expertise and input should be encouraged, and it’s why I have advocated that all interested parties should weigh-in on our proceedings. It makes all the sense in the world to seek advice and technical knowledge from those integrally involved with developing, deploying or using a particular technology or set of technologies, or those who are active users of said technology.

A fundamental problem with the current workings of the non-statutorily set advisory committees, however, is that the Chairman’s office has absolute and complete power over every aspect of their existence. Sure, individual Commissioners are invited to say a few words to open a meeting or congratulate their good works, which I often do, but not much else. The membership, selection of the committee chairs, timing of any reports and/or recommendations, and all other aspects of their operations are determined solely by the Chairman. If all of the decision-making is in the hands of the Chairman, how can a committee’s outcomes ever be considered bipartisan, or better-yet, nonpartisan and independent?

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