November 20, 2019 - 2:20 pm
By Ajit Pai | FCC Chairman

The last Federal Communications Commission meeting of 2019, on December 12, features more than one item that could receive top billing in an ordinary month. But at the top of the agenda is something that I hope will be seen in time as one of the most consequential decisions of this Commission. That's because I'm confident it will save countless lives.

In 2017, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline received more than two million calls from people seeking help. Now consider that 10.6 million American adults seriously thought about committing suicide that same year. 1.4 million Americans attempted it. And tragically, 47,000 Americans died by suicide. Suicide rates in America are rising and have reached the highest levels we've seen since World War II.

Even though many are currently receiving life-saving counseling, there are millions more who need it but aren't reaching out. The evidence and common sense tell us that if we make it easier for people to call for help, more people will get the counseling they need. That is exactly what the Commission is poised to enable.

Chairman Pai at the National Council for Behavioral Health on November 19, 2019. Click for full size image.

As I announced this past Tuesday at the National Council for Behavioral Health, I've circulated a proposal to move forward with the necessary steps to establish 988 as a national 3-digit number to access suicide prevention and mental health services. Under my proposal, anyone calling 988 would be routed to the established National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK), which is already saving lives. I believe that an easy-to-remember 3-digit number for emergency suicide prevention and mental health services would result in more people reaching out for assistance and would help to combat this crisis.

The second item on the Commission's December agenda involves a proposal to provide dedicated spectrum for both advanced automotive safety technology and unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi. In 1999, the FCC allocated 75 megahertz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for a service called Dedicated Short-Range Communications. Commonly known as DSRC, this technology was intended to enable transportation-related communications, including vehicle-safety applications. Unfortunately, after two decades—an eternity, considering the other digital innovation we've seen—DSRC has barely been deployed, meaning this spectrum has been largely unused.

In my second speech of the week, I previewed a plan to take a fresh look at the 5.9 GHz band and set a path for the deployment of new services. In particular, I've proposed making the lower 45 MHz of the band available for unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi. Since its launch, Wi-Fi has become a staple of everyday life. Wi-Fi now carries more than half of the Internet's traffic. It has become a foundational technology for the Internet of Things, connecting our TVs, thermostats, baby monitors, refrigerators, washing machines, toys, and even toilets. We therefore need to make more spectrum available for unlicensed use to meet growing consumer demand. At the same time, my plan would allocate the upper 20 MHz of this band for a new automotive communications technology, Cellular Vehicle to Everything, or C-V2X. This new technology would use cellular protocols to provide direct communications between vehicles, and, as the name suggests, everything—including other vehicles on the road, infrastructure like light poles, cyclists, pedestrians, and road workers. We also propose to make an additional 10 megahertz available for transportation-related communications, for a total of 30 megahertz, and invite comment on whether it should be used for DSRC or C-V2X. If adopted, my new plan for this band would make far more productive use of this spectrum, and would deliver far more value to American consumers, than the status quo.

In addition to the 5.9 GHz item, we will consider a second proposal on our December agenda regarding mid-band spectrum. In March 2018, Congress passed a law calling for the exploration of commercial uses in the 3.1-3.55 GHz band. Currently, the Department of Defense operates high-powered radar systems in this band, with some non-federal users offering radiolocation services on a secondary basis. To prepare the upper portion of the band for potential shared use between commercial wireless services and federal incumbents, I'm proposing to remove the existing non-federal secondary radiolocation and amateur allocations in the 3.3-3.55 GHz band and relocate those services to the 3.1-3.3 GHz portion of the band or other frequencies. Clearing this upper portion of the band of existing non-federal operations could help us make as much as 250 megahertz of spectrum available for advanced wireless services. This would promote the development and deployment of 5G services across the country and advance American leadership in this next generation of wireless connectivity.

Next up, we'll have an item that will help encourage the ongoing transition from legacy voice networks to Internet Protocol-based networks. Traditionally, the Commission has indirectly subsidized the construction and operation of telephone networks through a complicated system of rules known as intercarrier compensation. One of these rules allows local phone companies (or LECs) to charge long-distance companies for delivering long-distance calls to customers on the LEC's network. But as more and more telephone calls are carried on both the traditional phone network—known as the public-switched telephone network—and IP-based networks, and as more and more consumers look to alternatives to traditional phone service like voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), it raises questions about which carriers should be able to collect these charges. At our December meeting, the Commission will consider a Declaratory Ruling interpreting what is known as the VoIP symmetry rule. The prior Commission's interpretation of this rule (over my dissent) was rejected by the D.C. Circuit, and this Declaratory Ruling would take a different tack. Specifically, it would determine that LECs may assess end-office switched access charges if, and only if, the local carrier or its VoIP partner provides a physical connection to the last-mile facilities used to serve an end-user. This all sounds very complicated to the uninitiated, but the thing to know is that this will help ensure that carriers have the right incentives to deploy modern, IP-based networks throughout our country.

Rounding out our December meeting will be two media items. The first seeks to make sure consumers are accurately informed and not confused when there are disputes between broadcasters and cable programmers, on the one hand, and cable operators, on the other. Americans are all-too-familiar with retransmission consent and program carriage negotiations that come down to the wire—sometimes days or even hours before the existing agreements expire. Under current rules, cable providers must give consumers 30 days' notice before a channel goes dark if the change is within a provider's control. However, the problem is that most retransmission and program carriage disputes are resolved within the 30-day window before agreements expire, which creates a significant problem. Specifically, we don't want consumers to be inundated by premature and inaccurate notices about channel changes that never come to pass. And our rule begs the question whether the failure to reach an agreement in the 30 days before a contract expires is within a cable operator's control. After all, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. So to make consumer notices more meaningful and accurate and to make our rules clearer, we will consider a proposal to change the notice deadline from 30 days in advance to "as soon as possible" in cases in which carriage negotiations fail during the last 30 days of a contract.

The second media item would tweak our licensing process for noncommercial educational full-service FM and full-power television (NCE) and low-power FM (LPFM) broadcast stations. The proposed changes build upon lessons learned from the most recent NCE and LPFM filing windows and are designed to improve our comparative selection and licensing procedures, expedite the initiation of new service to the public, eliminate unnecessary applicant burdens, and reduce the number of appeals of our NCE comparative licensing decisions.

The Commission will also consider three enforcement items at our December meeting. Because we cannot discuss enforcement actions before they are adopted, I can't share any further details about these actions at this time.

With Thanksgiving a week away, I'll close by thanking all of the Commission staff for their outstanding work on our December agenda—and indeed, all year long. I've said repeatedly that the Commission's top-notch staff is our greatest asset. They do the heavy lifting that makes the lives of the American people better in meaningful ways. A cornucopia of gratitude to them, and here's wishing everyone a happy start to the holiday season.