The Federal Communications Commission's Aug. 3 meeting was largely focused on expanding broadband access, especially in rural areas.
The commission unanimously voted to adopt a public notice initiating the pre-auction process for the Connect America Fund Phase II auction, which will award up to $198 million annually for 10 years to service providers that commit to offer voice and broadband services to fixed locations in unserved high-cost areas. The agency's lone Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she is especially pleased the item seeks comment on ways to make the auction process easier for smaller providers, as well as those that have never participated in a commission auction.
Chairman Ajit Pai echoed his hope that the Phase II auction will see a wide variety of companies, both large and small, participating. "Among others, I'm thinking here about small competitive providers and rural electric cooperatives that want to bring fibers to neighbors currently on the wrong side of the digital divide. And fixed wireless providers who can efficiently serve remote areas and satellite providers aiming to bring connectivity that is comparable to what you might get from a land-based network," he said.
In line with this goal, Pai said the FCC is working to build an auction interface that is easy to use.
Also at the meeting, the FCC unanimously adopted a second report and order that tweaks how the agency directs Mobility Fund Phase II support, or federal dollars to go toward supporting the delivery of mobile services. The agency hopes to ensure that dollars from the fund go primarily to rural areas that lack unsubsidized 4G service.
In terms of collecting good data to help direct future funding for broadband deployment, the FCC unanimously voted to adopt a further notice of proposed rulemaking that takes a focused look at the agency's Form 477, which requires all facilities-based broadband providers to file twice a year. Specifically, fixed service providers must list all census blocks where they offer internet service at speeds exceeding 200 kbps, while mobile providers file maps of their coverage areas.
The commission is seeking comment on how to revise its mobile data collection so that the data collected more closely aligns with the actual customer experience. In the past, members of Congress have complained that although FCC maps show mobile service throughout their state, there are significant dead zones that they have personally experienced.
For fixed services, the item seeks comment on increasing the level of granularity at which Form 477 data is collected. Earlier this year, J. Brent Legg, vice president of government affairs at the technology organization Connected Nation, told Congress the data required on Form 477 is not sufficient as the form requires providers to report "served" census blocks even if just one household in a given block is served. This results in a significant overstatement of availability, he said.
Pai noted during the FCC meeting that outside interest in Form 477 is "remarkably strong," adding, "In the two congressional hearings in which I participated last month, Form 477 was mentioned by name a total of nine times. And so this is like the 'Game of Thrones' of data sets in terms of buzz it generates in Washington."
Another item on the agenda that has attracted plenty of attention was the notice of inquiry exploring opportunities for next generation services in the 3.7 GHz to 24 GHz spectrum range. The notice, which was unanimously adopted by the commission, specifically focuses on how the mid-band spectrum can be used to for wireless broadband services.
In an editorial for Wireless Week, Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of the wireless association CTIA, said the FCC's mid-band spectrum item was essential for keeping the U.S. competitive with other countries as the wireless industries moves forward on next-generation 5G networks.
"From China and Japan to Australia and the United Kingdom, countries around the world have identified mid-band spectrum as a key set of frequencies to deliver next-generation 5G wireless services and unlock the full potential of the Internet of Things. These countries are moving aggressively," she said, adding, "The United States needs to keep pace."
Before voting for the item at the meeting, Commissioner Michael O'Rielly addressed the work being done on mid-band spectrum in other countries and said he hopes the commission expedites its own mid-band proceeding.
"The consideration of the 3.7- to 4.2 GHz and 6 GHz bands was likely ripe for notice of proposed rule making rather than the notice of inquiry route, so I hope at a minimum we will push these bands forward as quickly as possible," he said.