June 24, 2020 - 2:30 pm
By Ajit Pai | FCC Chairman

During the pandemic, many Americans, like me, have been binge watching television shows while staying at home.  And for 14 straight days in June, the most watched show on Netflix has been “13 Reasons Why,” a drama about teen suicide.  There’s good reason why a suicide-themed drama is so culturally resonant at this moment. 

Put simply, we are facing a suicide crisis in America.  Since 1999, the number of suicides in America has gone up 35%.  For young people, the suicide rate is rising even faster, up 56% over a decade.  We are losing an American to suicide every 11 minutes.  With these increases, we now have the highest suicide rates in the United States since World War II.

Yesterday, I spoke to an online gathering of the National Council for Behavioral Health to tell them that help is on the way.  And I recently sent my fellow Commissioners draft final rules to establish 988 as a national three-digit number to access suicide prevention and mental health services.  Currently, more than two million people a year call 1-800-273-TALK to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  Experts predict that replacing this 10-digit number with an easy-to-remember three-digit number that echoes 911 will result in millions more Americans reaching out for help that could save their lives.  While voice service providers will need to do some work to implement these new rules, under my proposal, the 988 number would be operational for Americans nationwide by July 2022, a more aggressive timeline than industry has been advocating.  I hope that my fellow Commissioners will join me in supporting 988 at our July meeting.   

The Commission not only wants to make it easier to make calls that could save lives, we also want to help you avoid unwanted calls that are constantly annoying Americans and costing time and money, in the case of scams.  Year in and year out, unwanted robocalls are the FCC’s top source of consumer complaints.  Accordingly, we’ve made stopping unwanted and illegal calls our top consumer-protection priority.  Among our many efforts to combat this scourge, the Commission recently proposed a record $225 million fine against a telemarketer who made approximately one billion spoofed robocalls selling health insurance—and we’ve partnered with the Federal Trade Commission to force providers that facilitated the entry of illegal robocalls into our country to stop.

I believe that one of the most effective solutions to this problem is call-blocking technology.  That’s why, since I became Chairman, the Commission has authorized voice service providers to block unwanted calls by default, ordered the creation of a reassigned numbers database so consumers do not get calls intended for others, and mandated caller ID authentication.  In July, the Commission will consider an Order than would provide carriers a safe harbor from liability for the unintended or inadvertent blocking of calls so long as such action is based upon reasonable analytics indicating that such calls were unwanted and therefore should be blocked.  And we’ll formalize the blocking of bad actor telephone companies that act as a gateway for illegal and unwanted calls.  We will also be seeking comment on whether to obligate originating and intermediate providers to better police their networks against illegal calls, as well as to require terminating providers to provide information about blocked calls to consumers at no charge.

The next item on our July agenda will build on our November 2019 Order to secure the communications supply chain—the process by which products and services are manufactured, distributed, sold, and ultimately integrated into our networks.  In November 2019, the Commission banned the use of public funds from the Commission’s Universal Service Fund to purchase or obtain any equipment or services produced or provided by companies posing a national security threat to the integrity of communications networks or the communications supply chain.  We also initially designated two companies, Huawei and ZTE, as covered companies for purposes of this rule, and we established a process for designating additional covered companies in the future.  Since then, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act (Secure Networks Act).  This law requires the FCC to prohibit the use of federal subsidy funds to purchase, rent, lease, or otherwise obtain or maintain any covered communications equipment or services from certain companies.  In three weeks, we will vote on a Declaratory Ruling that would find that the Commission’s November 2019 Order fulfills this obligation.  We will also consider a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would seek comment on proposals to implement other sections of the Secure Networks Act.  As the FCC continues this important work to protect our nation’s communications infrastructure, I hope that Congress will also provide the necessary funding—which we estimated in November could cost up to $2 billion—for small, rural carriers to remove and replace insecure equipment from their networks.

In July, we’ll also aim to strengthen the effectiveness of 911.  In an era when most 911 calls are placed with mobile phones, accurately locating where calls come from is vital to the system’s effectiveness.  In 2019, the FCC took a major step to help first responders quickly locate people calling for help from multi-story buildings when we adopted a vertical (z-axis) location accuracy metric of plus or minus 3 meters for wireless 911 calls.  In three weeks, the Commission will consider a Report and Order that would further build on this work to improve vertical location accuracy for wireless 911 calls.  This item would affirm our 2021 and 2023 deadlines for nationwide wireless providers to deploy z-axis technology in our nation’s most populated markets and call for full nationwide deployment by 2025.  This item would also give a green light to wireless carriers to deploy technologies that focus on multi-story buildings and handset-based deployment solutions that meet the z-axis metric.

When disaster strikes, it is critical that America’s public safety and emergency preparedness personnel, including first responders, are able to communicate.  The Department of Homeland Security oversees three longstanding programs to help ensure that emergency workers receive prioritized connectivity to landline and wireless networks, as well as priority for service restoration, if needed.  While DHS manages these programs through contracts with participating communications providers, the FCC’s rules for two of these programs were developed decades ago when communications networks were based on legacy technologies.  It’s time to refresh and revise those rules.  So on July 16, the Commission will consider proposals to remove outdated requirements, reflect the current marketplace, and help ensure these programs meet the needs of emergency personnel today and in the future.

Next on our July agenda will be another item to modernize outdated regulations, namely our leased access rules.  These regulations require cable operators to set aside channel capacity for commercial use by unaffiliated video programmers.  Although our regulations may have made sense when they were adopted decades ago, programmers can now choose to distribute their content on a wide variety of online video platforms, so the need for burdensome leased access rules has dramatically diminished.  Last year, we finally modernized many of our leased access rules to account for the transformation of the video marketplace after the rules were stuck in legal limbo for over a decade.  But we didn’t reach a resolution on how to modernize the leased access rate formula.  Next month, the Commission will vote on an Order that would establish a simplified tier-specific rate calculation to ease burdens on cable operators while also fulfilling our statutory obligation to establish rules for determining maximum reasonable leased access rates.   

Rounding out our July agenda will be an item that will help the Commission collect granular and precise broadband coverage data from service providers.  We cannot close the digital divide and bring digital opportunity to every last American until we know where broadband is available, and where it is not.  The Commission’s current broadband mapping tool has helped us identify the least served areas in the country and bring broadband to those areas.  But as I’ve long said, the maps need to be better so that policymakers and consumers alike can have confidence in them.  That’s why in 2019 the Commission adopted the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, which laid out a multi-pronged approach to developing a nationwide broadband map that will have unprecedented detail.  This past March, Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act, largely ratifying the Digital Opportunity Data Collection’s approach to broadband mapping.  At our next meeting, the Commission will consider a Second Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would begin implementing certain aspects of the Broadband DATA Act by adopting specific coverage reporting and disclosure requirements for fixed and mobile broadband providers, filing and certification requirements, and measures for determining the accuracy of broadband availability data.  It would also develop a process for engaging directly with state, local, and Tribal governments, along with consumers and other entities, to ensure that the maps are as accurate as possible.  As the FCC continues this important work, I hope that Congress will also provide the necessary funding—at least $65 million—to get our broadband mapping efforts off the ground and allow us to implement these rules.

I can’t think of many meetings where we have addressed such a broad array of critical issues, from combatting robocalls to bridging the digital divide to network security to public safety.  But for all the important initiatives that we are poised to advance in three weeks, I believe the Commission’s July 2020 meeting will be remembered as a moment when the FCC came together to save lives.  Creating 988 as a national 3-digit number to access mental health services will be a game-changer for suicide prevention, and I am grateful to the FCC staff and outside partners who made it possible.