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26 minutes

It may seem like ancient history, but there was a time when one of the FCC's top priorities was making sure landline telephone service reached every American. And as technology evolves—from copper phone lines to fiber optic cables, from landline phones to 5G smartphones—so does the mission of the FCC and its various bureaus. Evan is joined by Kris Monteith, Chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau. They discuss the evolution of the Wireline Bureau's mission, the work the FCC does to bring broadband to more Americans, and updating regulations for the modern marketplace. (Note: This podcast was recorded in early 2020) (Disclaimer)


Evan Swarztrauber: Hey listener, a quick note before we begin: this episode was recorded in early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic had swept across the country. While this episode was recorded a while ago, the topics on today’s show, including bringing broadband to more Americans, have never been more relevant and important. So I hope you enjoy the show, and thanks for listening.


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Welcome to More Than Seven Dirty Words, the official FCC podcast. I'm Evan Swarztrauber.

The FCC has many bureaus and divisions, and the roles they play often evolve along with the technologies they regulate. For example, the Wireline Competition Bureau. There was a time in that seems like forever ago when a long distance call was still a separate line item on your phone bill, and getting landline telephone service to every home in America was the bog priority in the halls of the FCC.

Now, the top priority is closing the digital divide, including by incentivizing the deployment of fiber optic cables across the whole country which are a bit more high tech than the copper wires of the networks of old.

So what does the world of Wireline look like in 2020? I'm joined by Kris Monteith, Chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau. Kris, thanks so much for joining.

MS. MONTEITH: Thank you, Evan; my pleasure.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So how did you get to be Wireline Bureau Chief? I understand you've had a few different positions at the FCC.

MS. MONTEITH: I have, in fact. Unlike some FCCers, I've moved around in the Agency over the past 22 years.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Shots fired.

MS. MONTEITH: But I'm going to get just a little bit philosophical on you for a moment. I honestly believe that much of what happens in life is a combination of good luck and being in the right place at the right time.

With respect to good luck, I believe we have an opportunity to shape our luck; and my mantra on that score is, work hard and be kind.

Getting to your question, so I had an opportunity to work with Chairman Pai (phonetic) when he was deputy general counsel in our Office of General Counsel about a decade or so ago, and I've had an opportunity over the years to work with other members of his staff and advisors.

And I happened to be in the Wireline Competition Bureau when he became chairman of the FCC in 2017, so I was extremely honored that he asked me to head up the bureau at that time, and it's been a great and fantastic ride, working with him over the past three years.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well, I'm glad that he made that decision as well. So at a high level, for those who don't spend all their time following the structure of the FCC; maybe they're watching TV or doing other fun activities. What does the Wireline Competition Bureau do?

MS. MONTEITH: So at a very high level, we regulate wired-based services. We work to ensure that all Americans have access to robust, affordable broadband and voice services.

The programs and policies that we oversee include the four programs under the universal service umbrella, the high-cost program, the rural health care program, the E-rate program, and lifeline.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And those all respectively deal with -- for high cost, we're talking about places where it just costs a lot of money to deploy a service. For E-rate, we're talking about schools and libraries --

MS. MONTEITH: -- schools and libraries.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: For health care it's hospitals, clinics --

MS. MONTEITH: Health care providers, providing subsidies to enable them to provide services like telemedicine, remote access to health records; those kinds of things.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And then the last one, lifeline, we're talking about phone service.

MS. MONTEITH: Phone service for low-income consumers.


MS. MONTEITH: All, again, sort of under the overarching principle of access to affordable telecommunication services for all.


MS. MONTEITH: We also work to protect consumers and foster competition, so we work on infrastructure, barriers to deployment, those types of issues. We review communications, industry transactions and mergers to ensure that they're in the public interest.

We do numbering-related issues, and we'll talk about those a little bit, such as our recent rulemaking proceeding that deals with establishing a three-digit code for national suicide prevention. And finally, we oversee three important federal advisory committees: the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee; the North American Numbering Council, and the more recent Precision Agriculture Task Force.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well, you just accomplished a task I didn't think was possible which was to summarize the Wireline Competition Bureau in less than a couple of minutes, so congratulations on that.

So one thing that's interesting about the Wireline Bureau is just how much you spend time on certain topics seems to evolve over time, right? I bet there was a time when long distance calling was like the big thing that everyone was working on all the time.

And now you're still dealing with that, but you're also dealing with gigabit fiber networks and electric utilities getting into the broadband business; a new entity that you're now interacting with that maybe in the past you wouldn't deal without a different regulatory agency.

And changes in how we deal with phone service; now it's basically a given that a long distance call is no different than a regular call as it relates to a consumer's bill. So how have you seen those changes over time, and how has that affected the Bureau and what it does on a day-to-day basis?

MS. MONTEITH: Our work has changed dramatically over time, and as you mentioned, we have to evolve with the evolving technologies.

We're still working within the confines of the Communications Act, the authority given to us by Congress, but some of that evolves over time. Most of us have really witnessed, as you were alluding to, just these amazing changes in technology and communication services in just a few short decades.

I'm guessing that I'm slightly older than you are, Evan --

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Maybe a year or two.

MS. MONTEITH: A year or two. So we've gone from, as you were talking about, traditional landline service to cell phones that were the size of bricks and dumb, to our smart phones. We've gone from dial-up Internet to high-speed broadband with speeds and usages that are ever increasing.


MS. MONTEITH: We've worked very hard in the Bureau to keep pace with evolving technology and to make sure that what we do is fostering innovation and investment in technology to meet consumers' demand and to meet the realities in the marketplace.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So speaking of incentivizing investment, the chairman's top priority, the FCC's top priority is closing this digital divide. And when we say the digital divide what we mean is the percentage of Americans that, today, still lacks access to high-speed broadband as defined by the FCC.

Now, on way the FCC helps to close the digital divide is by making it cheaper to deploy infrastructure, and part of that is updating regulations that might be adding costs to the system that are unnecessary to get the service out there, and the Wireline Bureau does a lot of this work.

I was hoping to touch on a couple of policies that are already having an impact out there in the field. One is called One Touch Make Ready. As far as telecom slogans go, that's pretty catchy, but it also doesn't mean anything unless you work in this field. So what are we making ready? What are we touching, and why is this important to consumers?

MS. MONTEITH: One of the first things I did as a new telecom attorney was work on pole attachments (phonetic); issues.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: That's a buzzword in telecom; pole attachments (phonetic).

MS. MONTEITH: Pole attachments (phonetic). And it made me, at that time, stop and look at poles to see what's on the pole. I really, as sort of your average consumer, had not paid attention to that.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: It never goes away.

MS. MONTEITH: And that never goes away.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: When I drive around now, I look at cell towers; I'm like, Is this the rest of my life now? I'm just never going to stop doing this?

MS. MONTEITH: Exactly. You know, I learned about the electric space on the pole, then the telecom space on the pole. It almost made me want to decide not to be a telecom lawyer.

But I got over that, and I realized, really, the importance of poles and the attachments that go on those poles. And the process of attaching can be a very time-consuming and expensive process. You're talking, depending on the area in which an entity is deploying, maybe thousands of poles.


MS. MONTEITH: So the concept of One Touch Make Ready is fundamentally shifting the framework for pole attachments and allowing the new entity that is going to attach to the pole to control that process, versus under the old regime where each entity that had an attachment on the pole had an ability to really slow the process down.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. The incentive there is that if you're already there, what incentive do you have to let someone else come in, right?

MS. MONTEITH: Exactly.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: I would like to attach something to your house. You're going to say, No, right? Why would you say yes, right? And of course, shifting that to the new entity who has the incentive to deploy could be powerful.

MS. MONTEITH: It's very powerful, and as we know, it's sort of -- not just in this field -- but speed to market is important. It can be the make or break in whether you're successful, and I think that concept comes into play here.

And so the Commission really -- and working with our -- I spoke of our federal advisory committee, the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee -- we undertook a rulemaking proceeding to adopt a One Touch Ready regime and thereby sort of removed some of those barriers to entry, allow entities to attach to poles in a much more streamlined fashion.

Now the process can work, in some cases, 25 days, versus months, years, potentially

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: That's close to -- yes. Yes, because in the past it might not just be one entity that's already on the pole; it could be several. And you have to get permission, basically, from each of them in a separate manner, and they'd each move at a different time.

MS. MONTEITH: Exactly.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Now you're coming in; I'm just going to move all three of you. If I break something, I've got to pay you for that. But I'm just going to do it all at once.

And now this has been in effect for a little bit now. It was what, 2018?

MS. MONTEITH: Yes, I believe so.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So what sorts of results are we seeing out in the field?

MS. MONTEITH: It's still early in the process. We still are monitoring to see how effective it is, but we're encouraged that this will, in fact, be a very much improved process by which to get deployed and out there.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes, I mean, going from potentially months and years to weeks is a big deal. Now, another thing that the FCC has been prioritizing is incentivizing new networks being deployed, right? There are these legacy copper networks all over the country, and they have played their role throughout history. You know, when you're picking up your phone and dialing a number on a land line and decades passed, that was probably going over copper.

But now we're seeing a lot of our phone calls, even on a land line, are going over the Internet. It's these new networks; these IP-based networks. And the term that we use in this world of telecom is the IP transition.

And this is -- correct me if I'm wrong -- we're trying to get to a place where companies are maybe retiring their legacy copper network in favor of building a new network that carries broadband, voice, business services, all-in-one stuff that is of a much higher quality and much faster.

Now, the FCC is not going around saying you have to do that; you have to get rid of that old thing and build this new thing, but what are we doing to try to incentivize a provider to move to the new technology?

MS. MONTEITH: I think the point that you made, Evan, is really important, and it in some ways distinguishes the FCC and how we go about regulating -- I use quotation marks around that -- the industry. And oftentimes what we are trying to do is create a regulatory regime that removes those barriers, removes outdated regulations, and fosters innovation investment, and again, sort of speed to market types of regimes.

And here again, as a policy, our tech transition, we're not mandating anything, but we're trying to remove the underbush, so to speak, to make it easier for companies to move from copper to fiber.

And we have under the Communications Act our Section 214, network change and discontinuance rules. And they are like, in the sort of One Touch Make Ready regime, we've tried to speed that process and make is as efficient as possible; so compress the timelines, look carefully at the notice provisions under those rules, while still keeping in mind that we need to protect consumers. We need to make sure that there are replacements out there if a consumer does not want to make that move. So we have in place those kinds of protections for consumers.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So right. It's not just as simple as flipping a switch if you want to move to the new network. There's notice involved; there's rules about how quickly you can do it and what communication has to happen with your community and the FCC. And what we've done here is jut tighten that up; make it quicker, make it simpler.

MS. MONTEITH: Exactly.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Now, there are some parts of the country where, no matter what you do on the regulatory side; you do the One Touch Ready; you do the incentivizing of the IP transition; you simplify pole attachments. Despite all that, it's just too expensive to deploy for the private section business case to make sense.

And that's where the universal service fund comes in; some of these programs you mentioned earlier. I did a whole episode with your colleague, Chelsea, on the Connect America Fund. But more broadly, what role does universal service play in closing the digital divide?

MS. MONTEITH: As you said, universal service really kicks in when removing regulatory barriers and other market incentives are not sufficient to see deployment. It plays a vital role in closing the digital divide and, as we've talked, that's the Commission's number one priority.

And when you think about the digital divide in very personal terms; like you and I have access to high-speed broadband. You and I have access to the full range of communication services. We're in a major metropolitan urban area; we take it for granted in some ways.


MS. MONTEITH: But you get out there to places where they don't have it, and it's make or break. It's jobs; it's education; digital learning and how kids learn.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Health care.

MS. MONTEITH: It's health care. It's so important, and the Commission, over the past three years, I think has just been really focused on this issue and really making important progress to, like in decades or eras ago, build our interstate system or our road system or our rural electrification. It's that kind of an effort that we're undertaking here.

So with the high cost program, it's really all about those high-cost or extremely high-cost areas. We've just created -- and in fact the Commission will vote in a few short days -- on the rural digital opportunity fund. It's a 20.4-billion-dollar fund that's looking in two phases to get high-speed Internet access to unserved areas; rural areas.

In the first phase we're really looking at areas that we know are wholly unserved. There's no one there; no one's offering service below 25.3, which is what we consider to be high-speed Internet broadband at this point in time.


MS. MONTEITH: And so we're looking at a reverse auction which we have found through our past experience to be very effective in driving down the price at which we can get high-speed Internet to those areas.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: They are providers competing for the funds.

MS. MONTEITH: That's exactly right. And we're looking at a combination of performance tiers, latency, to get the best possible future-proof Internet access services in these rural areas.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And one of the things that has been good about the reverse auctions is this competition between different technologies, different companies, trying to get the best bang for the buck while making sure that the service is good and that rural Americans don't get a second-class service.

If you don't live in a rural area, you might not interact with some of these companies that are kind of involved in these auctions, right? If you're only familiar with maybe a cable company or a phone company, you might not have heard about an electric utility providing broadband or a fixed wireless provider doing broadband in a rural area. So how has that tech-neutral approach paid dividends in terms of auctions in the past, and do we hope that that will similarly drive results in the rural digital opportunity fund?

MS. MONTEITH: Yes. In the past we've had, as you said, a technology-neutral approach while still looking at evaluating how we best weigh the options, those bidders in the auction to ensure the best quality broadband services for the dollar, for the price.

In the Cafes II (phonetic) auction we found that the rural electric co-ops, who already serve their communities with electric services, who already have customer relationships, came in and bid in that auction and were very successful in winning in certain areas of the country.

That kind of competition is good for everyone. It helps drive down prices, helps get those really hard-to-serve areas where the business case just may not exist.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: I heard Chairman Pai one time in an open meeting when he was introducing a Wireline Bureau staffer who was giving a presentation. He said, There are those who Wireline and those who don't. Maybe I'm paraphrasing.

But that stuck with me because, as I've worked here I've noticed that while there are tough technical issues across all of the bureaus, and I don't mean to suggest that there are not, is seems that the ones that get kind of get so far in the weeds that you're almost ready to quit or change career paths as you suggested earlier, seemed to be disproportionately concentrate in your bureau.

So I wanted to ask you, what is the strangest, most difficult topic that comes across your desk that even the best lawyers can struggle with?

MS. MONTEITH: I would have to say UNEs (phonetic).

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And that is an unbundled network element?

MS. MONTEITH: UNEs are an unbundled network.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Did I Wikipedia that 20 minutes before this episode? Maybe I did.

MS. MONTEITH: And the concept of a UNE is a good concept coming out of the '96 act where the '96 act was about spurring competition in local markets.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: For phone service.

MS. MONTEITH: For phone service; for voice telephony services.


MS. MONTEITH: And the incumbent lacks (phonetic) at that time, having about 99 percent of the market, how do we set up a regime that will enable competitors to come in?

So the concept was to allow access to certain unbundled network elements so that Selack (phonetic), a competitor, could come in and lease, so to speak, that element to help it put its own service together.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: But you're the big incumbent company selling access to its network on a wholesale basis, basically, to companies that might companies that might compete for individual customers.

MS. MONTEITH: Exactly. This is a very complicated, arcane area of law, and I will tell you that I am extremely grateful that I have very smart lawyers in the Bureau that work on the UNE proceedings, of which we've had several.


MS. MONTEITH: And now at this time, looking at whether or not UNEs are still necessary. Is there enough competition? Is there robust competition in the area sufficient that we no longer need to impose that requirement on an incumbent lack.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes, given that the copper wire is no longer the only means through which to make a phone call. We all do phone calls on our cell phones; people are going totally cordless, only having a cell phone.

There's Skype; there's Google Voice. If you have an Internet connection there are just endless ways to potentially make a phone call. So that's why the FCC is looking at this regime and saying, Oh, given that, does it still make sense to regulate the old network in that way?

MS. MONTEITH: And looking at the number of competitors in the market --


MS. MONTEITH: -- in a certain market, and again just sort of saying, Well, there's competition here already; therefore, do we need to provide access to UNEs? Should we be embracing regimes that spur facilities-based competition versus every sale type of --

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right, more infrastructure deployment.


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So I'm going to note that, and every time I have a Wireline person on the podcast I'm going to ask if they agree with you that it's UNEs. Maybe someone will say it's tariffing; maybe someone will say it's pricing; maybe someone will say it's numbering. I'll make sure to ask folks in the building to kind of get an informal poll on what the most arcane Wireline issue is.

Now obviously, tons of hip, cool, young people will think this podcast is why I do it, and some of them might be very interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours. Maybe they want to be bureau chief; maybe they want to be chairman or chairwoman. What advice would you have for those young lawyers that are interested in this area of the economy?

MS. MONTEITH: So I would say, if they're still in law school and thinking about communication, take a communications law course and definitely -- which I think most law school students do -- take your Administrative Procedures Act course. That's very important; that's what we do, and we're very bound by the APA.

Join the FCBA, Federal Communications Bar Association. It's a great way to network, to take advantage of continuing legal education opportunities; lots of brown bag series, et cetera.

I'd also say, at some point in your career, and we could debate whether that's right after you get out of law school or, like others, me for example, practice, whether in a law firm or in-house or an association, but at some point to (unintelligible) to the FCC.

There's no substitute, in my opinion, of actually knowing how the place works, and you cannot learn that from afar, in my humble opinion.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes, I would agree with that.

MS. MONTEITH: I recall when I was on the outside, a private law firm, thinking; Oh, my goodness. Why does it take the FCC so long to do everything? When you're on the inside you have a different view of that. We work really hard, and we work very hard to get it right for American consumers, and that's very important. There's too much at stake with respect to technology.


MS. MONTEITH: Now, the risk from doing a stint at the FCC is that you may just grow to love the place.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes, what happened?

MS. MONTEITH: I know, seriously. You know, the people are fantastic. They're really dedicated public servants. The policy work is really fun, so you may find yourself, like me, 23 years later going; Hmm. Thought I was just going to do my two-year stint at the FCC.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes. And obviously, based on my conversation with you, I would give important advice to all those who are thinking of joining the FCC to specialize in UNEs; that's number one. Of course, we need your help.

Maybe you're thinking about AI or virtual reality or something sexy like that. No, it's all about UNEs.

MS. MONTEITH: Exactly.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Take that to the bank. Well, we'll leave it there. My guest has been Kris Monteith, Chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau. Kris, thanks so much for coming on.

MS. MONTEITH: Thank you, Evan. I appreciate it.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Find this podcast in the iTunes store, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. Please leave us a review because it will help others find the show. Thanks for listening.