➤ The ongoing FCC-FAA 5G dispute underscores the importance of having a confirmed NTIA head to handle such matters.
➤ Accurate broadband maps are essential but will continue to be a challenge.
➤ Orbital debris regulations and more spectrum auctions will be among matters that are top-of-mind for the FCC in 2022.
A battle over spectrum is simmering between two federal agencies: the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA had threatened to impose flight restrictions as early as this week unless Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. postponed their deployments of what is known as C-band spectrum. The carriers agreed to a two-week delay Jan. 3, but have repeatedly pointed to studies reviewed by the FCC showing C-band wireless deployments do not interfere with aviation equipment.
S&P Global Market Intelligence recently spoke with former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to get his views on the ongoing dispute and other spectrum matters. He also spoke about broadband deployment and his outlook for the FCC for 2022. Pai is now a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. What follows is an interview that has been edited for length and clarity.
Ajit Pai served as FCC chairman from 2017 to 2021.
S&P Global Market Intelligence: One of the biggest spectrum stories heading into the new year is the ongoing dispute between the FCC and the FAA on 5G deployment. Do you have any thoughts on that? And do you see the battle for spectrum getting more contentious as we see a lot of incumbent spectrum holders hesitate to give up or share bands?
Ajit Pai: First, it's interesting that those who criticized the FCC in the previous four years — who often suggested that the agency wasn't doing enough to work with other agencies or that it was a sign of broader dysfunction within the executive branch — it's pretty clear that this is just commonplace. There's an institutional dichotomy between the commercial spectrum users, who are overseen by the FCC, and the so-called federal users, the federal agencies that use some of that spectrum and are supposed to work through their interlocutor, the NTIA in the Department of Commerce. Now we finally have recognition that this is not an issue unique to the previous administration. This is just an institutional feature of our government and the one that needs to be addressed in a forthright way.
Second, it's interesting that some of these agencies relitigate issues that were resolved by the prior FCC on the basis of engineering and sound technical analysis. You can see in our 2020 order we addressed the C-band issue and said that there is no harmful interference there. C-band is already being used around the world by some 40 nations, and you don't see planes falling out of the sky in those countries.
It also underscores the importance of having a confirmed head of the National Telecommunication and Information Administration. The NTIA is supposed to be the interlocutor with the FCC. If another agency has an issue about spectrum matters with the FCC, they're supposed to go to the NTIA. The NTIA then studies that objection and relays its consensus view to the FCC. But what's happening now is you have every agency trying to litigate directly with the FCC. And that makes things very, very difficult for everybody involved.
Spectrum is critical, one of the most critical inputs to wireless innovation in this country. And if we're going to maintain our lead in 5G and other advanced mobile technologies, we need to make sure that we have a steady pipeline of spectrum coming to market. We can't do that if this sort of bickering continues.
We've seen several efforts from FCC leadership throughout 2021 to expand internet and broadband access to everybody. How do you think the agency has been doing so far?
I've been pleased to see that a lot of the work that we did in the context of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund has been continued in terms of the approval of auction winnings and bids. And in terms of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, that was something that I pushed forward very strongly, and I think the agency has done a good job there as well, making sure that the program to implement that benefit was set up. And now that program may become permanent through subsequent legislation.
But one of the areas that's going to be a challenge for the FCC is to make sure that the maps for broadband availability and access are established and are accurate. This is something I pushed for a long time. In December of 2020, Congress finally gave the FCC $65 million of funding to start this process and we're still waiting on those updated maps. That is one of the things that's going to be a critical gatekeeper.
I say gatekeeper because in the recent infrastructure legislation that was passed, there is a condition which says that before the Department of Commerce can distribute money to the states for broadband projects, the FCC has to make accurate mapping available to everybody so that they [the states] target those public funds in a smart, thoughtful way.
2022 looks to be a pretty busy year. Are there any major FCC issues you've been watching personally, or any predictions you have?
One of the biggest is going to be the 2.5 GHz auction. Before I left the FCC, we put in place the steps that would enable the agency to hold that auction. It obviously didn't happen in 2021. What I would like to see is sort of a road map, a spectrum calendar, if you will, where the agency documents the time frame of when they're going to take action on the 2.5 GHz band and any subsequent bands.
The second one is going to be the support for all of the digital divide initiatives that are out there. Obviously, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund was set up as a two-phase auction. A big decision the FCC will have to make is when and how to conduct the Phase II auction. [Editor's note: Phase II of the RDOF reverse auction is set to deliver $11.2 billion in funding, but is dependent on accurate broadband maps to show unserved locations.] Also, the Department of Commerce, obviously, through the NTIA, is going to be making available some $42 billion to states to help close the digital divide.
Another one is orbital debris. The FCC has unanimously approved a number of low Earth orbit satellite constellations. SpaceX is the most obvious one, of course. With all of that increasing satellite activity in space, one of the things we kicked off in tandem about two years ago was an update to our orbital debris regulations, which were first launched in 2004. I think it's going to be very important for the FCC to figure out what those final orbital debris regulations should be because the consequences of a collision in space could be catastrophic.
Another issue — it may not be the most politically salient thing in Washington but it bugs a lot of consumers, including me — are robocalls and robotexts. In recent months, I've seen an uptick of robocalls, at least in my own personal experience. I'd want to monitor the digital authentication framework that we mandated last year and make sure that consumers are protected from these unwanted calls.
The last one that I'll mention is a personal priority for me. Of all of the things that we've talked about, this has the capacity to save the most lives, and that is the designation of 988 as a 3-digit number for suicide prevention and mental health. The implementation date of 988 is scheduled for July 16, 2022. Dial 988 and you'll go directly to one of the trained counselors in your area from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. With mental health and suicidal ideation issues on the rise during the pandemic, I think it's really critical. My hope is that in the years to come, young people, in particular, will think of 988 in the same way that we do 911.
READ MORE: This is the first part of a two-part Q&A with Ajit Pai. To read the second part, click here.