Our goal to “ensure that every person in every community, of every geography and income, has access to modern telecommunications service” has been the North Star of the Federal Communications Commission since its creation in 1934. This past year at the agency will be remembered for our progress toward that objective and for the policies we advanced to reflect a world where high-speed connectivity is no longer a luxury but a necessity.
I spent much of the year barnstorming the country to promote the Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program—the largest broadband affordability initiative in our Nation’s history. I rallied with mayors in Boston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles and the governor in Maryland. Perhaps my most notable stop was this summer, when I visited the Dallas area to announce that enrollment in the program had surpassed the 20 million household milestone. In addition, the Commission conducted a nationwide outreach campaign and awarded over $77 million in grants to 244 trusted partners to help increase ACP awareness and enrollment. Together, nearly seven million additional households signed up for ACP support in 2023, bringing the number of homes getting more affordable broadband through this historic program to over 22 million. But our progress here cannot slow down—we need help from Congress to keep this groundbreaking program going.
The Commission has not only been at the forefront of the effort to make home internet service more affordable, we have been working to make it universally available.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which created the Affordable Connectivity Program, also directed the Commission to “adopt rules to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access service.” Consistent with the law, the agency adopted rules to prevent digital discrimination of access to broadband services based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.
To identify where high-speed internet service is and is not available across the country, the Commission has also built the most accurate broadband map ever created. But it gets better because the map is iterative, we are continually refining the data, and in 2023, we released two major updates to the broadband map, which federal and state broadband funding programs are using to make smarter investment decisions about where to devote resources and develop infrastructure to close the digital divide.
It has long been a priority of mine and of this agency to close the Homework Gap by ensuring that students across this country have the high-speed internet access necessary to do their schoolwork and fully participate in the modern classroom. For over two decades, schools and libraries have received funding through the Commission’s E-Rate program to support these critical connections for students. This year, we took an important step to fund Wi-Fi on school buses. This will enable students to turn ride time into connected time for homework while commuting to and from school. It is especially valuable for students in rural America, who can spend long hours on these buses and are more likely to return home to areas without full broadband access.
Although everyone agrees that high-speed internet is no longer nice-to-have, but instead need-to-have, there is currently no expert agency ensuring that the internet is fast, open, and fair. The internet is too important to our economy and society not to have effective oversight. So, in October, the Commission advanced a plan to reassert the agency’s role as the country’s leading communications watchdog over national security and public safety on our broadband networks. This plan would also restore the Commission’s overwhelmingly popular net neutrality rules, which preserved internet openness by prohibiting internet providers from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing lawful content.
The Commission took many other actions in 2023 to update our rules and policies so they reflect new technologies and new market realities.
Some of the Commission’s most exciting work in 2023 was focused on advancing innovation for the new space age. The space industry has entered an era of unprecedented growth, which is fueling an increase in both the complexity and the number of applications for space services before the Commission. To keep pace with this rapid change, the Commission created a new Space Bureau, which has already developed new rules to streamline our satellite policies and expedite the processing of space and earth station applications. The agency has also dedicated spectrum specifically to commercial space launch activity.
I am especially excited about our proposal to harness the power of satellites to enhance mobile phone operations in areas where there is no terrestrial mobile service. This connectivity can help facilitate life-saving rescues in remote locations and the innovative opportunities it presents will only grow.
On a personal note, perhaps my most memorable trip of the year was a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the Kennedy Space Center where I was honored to meet the Artemis II crew who are training to become the first astronauts to visit the moon in over 50 years. I am deeply grateful to NASA Administrator Nelson for the invitation to discuss the Commission’s new space ventures.
With more and more facets of our lives moving online, I have reinvigorated the Commission’s efforts to ensure the privacy of consumer communications. In June, I announced that we created the first-ever Privacy and Data Protection Task Force at the Commission. To do this, we are bringing all of our technical and legal experts together from across the agency to maximize coordination and use the law to get results. We have updated our data breach notification rules for the first time in 16 years and put in place new rules to protect consumers from SIM-swapping fraud.
For the first time in the agency’s history, we have taken action to support communications for survivors of domestic violence and help them secure safe and affordable connections. We adopted rules not only to protect the privacy of calls made by survivors to domestic abuse hotlines, but also to help survivors separate service lines from family plans that include their abusers. On top of this, we took steps to help survivors rebuild their lives away from harm by offering six months of support for communications services for those who suffer from financial hardship.
In 2023, you cannot talk about what is new in technology without talking about Artificial Intelligence
In July, the Commission joined with the National Science Foundation to convene a forum on Artificial Intelligence. Our focus was on AI’s potential to do real good for communications, from increasing spectrum efficiency to improving network resilience with new tools to self-diagnose and self-heal network anomalies before they become communications challenges. Following this forum, we launched an inquiry to explore how the Commission might leverage new AI tools to better understand the actual usage of non-federal spectrum bands.
We also kicked off an inquiry on how best to seize the opportunities of AI regarding robocalls and robotexts, such as developing tools to help filter out sophisticated spam and phishing schemes, while mitigating potential harms of AI.
These AI-centered initiatives illustrate how the Commission may be using some new tactics, but we remain focused on long-standing priorities like consumer protection and maximizing the opportunities we have with scarce spectrum resources.
On the consumer protection front, cracking down on unwanted robocalls and robotexts remains at the top of our agenda. Among our many actions on this front, we have adopted the first-ever rules aimed specifically at stopping text messaging scams; closed gaps in our caller-ID authentication framework; empowered consumers to decide which robocalls and robotexts they wish to receive; and advanced rules to allow the Commission to “red flag” certain phone numbers and require mobile carriers to block texts from those numbers. We even shut down the “lead generator loophole” through which unscrupulous telemarketers have inundated consumers with unwanted and illegal robocalls and robotexts.
We have also made it clear that if you illegally circumvent our rules to protect consumers from unwanted robocalls and robotexts, you will pay the price, literally. We imposed over $600 million in fines against robocallers, including a record-breaking penalty of nearly $300 million against the firm behind a flood of auto warranty scam robocalls – the largest illegal robocall operation the agency has ever investigated.
If there is one thing consumers hate more than unwanted robocalls, it is junk fees. In March, we voted to protect consumers from surprises on their cable and satellite TV bills by proposing operators provide the “all-in” price on bills and promotional materials. And in December, we proposed to eliminate early termination fees, which make it costlier for cable and satellite TV subscribers to switch service, and billing cycle fees, which require consumers to pay for services they no longer receive.
On the spectrum front, we adopted rules to support new Wi-Fi applications and services using spectrum in the 6 GHz band. This is an area where the mix of capacity and wide channels provide the unique potential for augmented and virtual reality applications. The Commission also approved rules to expand the permissible uses for short-range radars in the 60 GHz band, which could facilitate advances in everything from drones to healthcare monitoring to sensors that alert drivers to children and pets left in dangerously hot cars. Looking more long-term, we voted to optimize the use of a massive swath of spectrum from 12.2 to 13.25 GHz for services including 6G and next-generation satellite broadband operations.
We also want spectrum policies that nurture a vibrant broadcasting sector. In April, we launched the public-private Future of TV initiative, which seeks to establish a roadmap for transitioning to a new broadcast standard that enables the offering of enhanced and innovative new services to consumers. In the past year, we also expanded broadcast service to the public by granting over 75 applications for construction permits for new non-commercial FM stations, and opening a Low Power FM new station application window. In addition, we acted to support broadcast innovation by proposing changes to the digital FM technical rules with the goal of improving signal quality and coverage.
In terms of long-standing priorities for the Commission, public safety remains at the top of the list. We started the year by establishing a nationwide framework to solidify the 4.9 GHz band’s status as public safety spectrum, while enabling the integration of technologies such as 5G. We made life-saving Wireless Emergency Alerts more accessible by approving enhanced support for multi-lingual alerting, requiring wireless providers that participate in WEA to support messages in the 13 most commonly spoken languages in the U.S. as well as English and American Sign Language. We voted to accelerate the roll out of Next Generation 911, which will support voice, text, data, and video and make the 911 system more resilient. And we are making sure life-saving counseling is there when you need it by establishing reporting and notice requirements for any outages of the new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
In 2023, we also ramped up our work to promote cybersecurity. We’ve worked closely with our partners at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to bolster the integrity of the Border Gateway Protocol, which is central to the internet’s global routing system. To elevate the level of baseline cybersecurity practices among manufacturers of common smart devices or products, we also proposed a first-of-its-kind cybersecurity labeling program for the Internet of Things. We also proposed a pilot program to help schools and libraries improve their cybersecurity efforts through the Universal Service Fund.
We have also been fighting to make sure vulnerable populations are treated fairly and can enjoy the benefits of the digital age. We voted to make video programming more accessible for blind and visually impaired individuals and smartphones more accessible to people with hearing loss. We provided relief for families of incarcerated people forced to pay exorbitant and unreasonable telephone rates for calls within a state’s borders. To help narrow the digital divide in Indian country, we voted to examine ways to encourage greater Tribal participation in the E-Rate program, extending our special initiative to support high-speed access in Tribal libraries everywhere. With increasing maternal mortality rates in the United States, we also voted to explore ways the Commission’s new mapping platform might be enhanced to help us better leverage digital health tools to improve maternal care.
While 2023 marked the arrival of a new Commissioner at the Commission, it will also be remembered for the loss of an iconic Chairman. On May 6, 2023, Newton Minow died at age 97. During his time as President Kennedy’s Chairman of the agency and in the decades since he left office, he reminded us that wanting better and more representative communications is worth fighting for because it strengthens our communities and our country. We are grateful for his service, and we will continue to honor his memory by working hard to ensure everyone, everywhere is connected.