June 1, 2017 - 2:00 pm
By Ajit Pai | FCC Chairman

You may never need them, but if you do, they’ll be there.

It’s that bedrock promise of protection that makes our public safety officials the unsung heroes that they are.  Whether it’s police officers, firefighters, first responders, or 911 dispatchers, many dedicated Americans work long hours, and often in difficult conditions, to make sure that when someone’s in need, they can help.

One of the reasons why Congress created the FCC—a reason it embedded in the very first section of the Communications Act of 1934—was “for the purpose of promoting safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communications.”  At our next public meeting on June 22, the FCC will aim to meet this charge by considering three ways to help law enforcement and first responders do their jobs.  We will recognize and support these often-unsung heroes during Public Safety Month at the Commission.

I had the privilege of previewing one of these items, relating to “Blue Alerts,” at the U.S. Department of Justice a couple of weeks ago.  The Emergency Alert System (EAS) has saved countless lives by warning TV viewers or radio listeners about matters like a child who has been abducted (now-familiar “Amber Alerts”) or extreme weather.  I have proposed authorizing a new EAS code for imminent threats against law enforcement.  Blue Alerts can warn the public when there is actionable information related to a law enforcement officer who is missing, seriously injured, or killed in the line of duty, or when there is a credible, short-term threat to an officer.  If a violent suspect is in your immediate community, Blue Alerts could give you instructions on what to do.  These instructions could help you stay safe and help supply time-sensitive information to authorities if a suspect is sighted. 

If this item is approved, we’ll then seek public input on whether the EAS is the right way to deliver Blue Alerts.  We’ll also explore whether a dedicated EAS code can enable the uniform, nationwide delivery of Blue Alerts to the public.

Speaking of nationwide communications systems, the second public safety matter we’ll consider would get us closer to finally creating a nationwide, interoperable broadband network that public safety officials can use.  This initiative, which began several years ago, is known as the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet.  As directed by the Public Safety Spectrum Act of 2012, the FCC has already provided FirstNet a license for 20 MHz of wireless broadband spectrum.  We have already given FirstNet the basic technical requirements for the network.  And our spectrum auctions have produced billions of dollars that will be used to help fund construction of the public safety network.

Buildout of this nationwide network is now set to begin.  States have the option to “opt out” of this system and build their own public safety radio networks, but only if the FCC determines that the state’s proposed network will be interoperable with FirstNet.  At our June meeting, the FCC will vote on the procedures and standards we will use for reviewing a state’s alternative plan—that is, to ensure that these public safety networks remain interoperable.  We are committed to working with FirstNet and all state and local partners to make sure that first responders have the tools they need to communicate seamlessly with each other during emergencies.

The third public safety item responds to issues raised by a recent spike in threatening calls targeting schools and religious organizations.  The FCC’s current rules require voice providers not to reveal blocked Caller ID information or to use that information to allow the person getting a call to contact the caller.  These rules have an important purpose, but they can raise a particular public safety concern. 

Earlier this year, as you may remember, numerous Jewish Community Centers received a number of threatening phone calls.  I’m proud that the FCC swiftly issued a temporary waiver allowing JCCs to work with carriers and law enforcement to identify callers.  But this episode raised the question of whether we need to make permanent changes to our rules.  At our June meeting, the Commission will tackle that question.  Specifically, we’ll consider a proposal to change the rules to ensure that all threatened parties and associated law enforcement personnel have quick access to the information they need to identify and thwart threatening callers. 

Now, while the FCC’s June meeting will be headlined by these public safety items, that’s not all that’s on tap.

  • One of our top priorities remains promoting broadband competition and deployment. Accordingly, we will vote on an order paving the way for the company OneWeb to provide broadband services using satellite technology that holds unique promise to expand Internet access in remote and rural areas.
  • Additionally, the FCC will consider in June a Notice of Inquiry seeking public input on ways to facilitate greater competition and consumer choice for Internet service in apartment complexes, office building, and other so-called "multi-tenant environments."
  • Consistent with our work to streamline outdated and unnecessary rules, we will consider a proposal to eliminate the annual audit and associated reporting requirement for payphone service providers. (We're no longer living in the days of The Wire where payphone use was common.)
  • As part of our effort to modernize our rules for the digital age, we are also taking up a Declaratory Ruling that would make clear that the "annual notices" cable operators have to deliver to their subscribers via paper mail may be delivered electronically.
  • And finally, we will be voting on an item from the Commission's Enforcement Bureau. For law enforcement reasons, we are unable to discuss it publicly before the June 22 meeting.

As we head into summer, millions of Americans will be watching their favorite heroes on the silver screen (paging Wonder Woman), the basketball court (my prediction: Golden State over Cleveland in 7), and elsewhere.  But let’s also remember those less-heralded heroes who make sacrifices every day on our behalf, especially the men and women in law enforcement who put on the uniform and put their lives on the line for us.  During Public Safety Month in June, I’m proud that the FCC will be honoring that commitment.