What will the FCC be tackling next?Chairman Pai’s theme for the December 12, 2019 Open Meeting is “A Small Number, A Big Difference.” This is a reference to the item adopting 988 as the nationwide 3-digit number to access suicide prevention and mental health services. The rest of the agenda continues the FCC’s ongoing efforts to provide more spectrum for next generation wireless services and modernize its cable rules. Of most interest to the telecom industry, however, will be the item finally resolving the issue of when CLECs and their VoIP partners can assess end office switched access charges. Depending on where you stand in the industry, you may or may not like the FCC’s answer. So, let’s start there.
In 2015, the FCC adopted a declaratory ruling interpreting the VoIP symmetry rule to allow LECs that partner with over-the-top VoIP providers to collect end office switching charges on their VoIP-PSTN traffic. AT&T appealed this ruling, arguing that services provided by over-the-top VoIP-LEC partnerships do not constitute the function equivalent of end office switching services because neither party is providing a physical connection between the LEC and the last-mile facility used to serve the end user. The US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed with AT&T, found the FCC’s order arbitrary and capricious, and remanded the matter back to the FCC for further consideration. This item resolves the remand by concluding that providing physical interconnection to facilities serving the end user is the hallmark of “end office switching.” Thus, “[a] VoIP-LEC partnership that interconnects a call with a customer’s last-mile facility performs the functional equivalent of end office switching and may charge for that functionality. By contrast, a VoIP provider, or a VoIP-LEC partnership, that transmits calls to an unaffiliated ISP for routing over the Internet does not provide the functional equivalent of end office switching, and may not impose an end office switching access charge on IXCs that receive or deliver traffic to or from the VoIP-LEC partnership.” The FCC is also proposing to give its ruling retroactive effect, saying “retroactivity is necessary to prevent an undue hardship being worked upon those parties who properly interpreted the VoIP Symmetry Rule and have been in disputes ever since.”
Turning to the “headline” item on the agenda, the FCC proposes rules to implement National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018. That Act tasked various agencies, including the FCC, with examining and reporting on the technical feasibility of replacing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hotline (1-800-273-8255/1-800-273-TALK) with a 3-digit number. The FCC is proposing to designate 988 as the 3-digit dialing code for a national suicide and mental health crisis hotline. All telecommunications carriers and interconnected VoIP service providers would be required to, within 18 months, make any changes to their networks necessary to ensure that users can dial 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The item also seeks comment on issues relating to ubiquitous nationwide deployment of 988, including call routing, dialing in certain geographic areas, implementation timeframe, and implementation costs.
For cable providers, the FCC continues its efforts to modernize those rules by giving providers more flexibility to react to the competitive marketplace. In the December agenda item, the FCC addresses the rule requiring cable operators to provide written notice to their subscribers and local franchising authorities (LFAs) about changes in certain information, including rates, service, and channel positions, as soon as possible and at least 30 days in advance of the change if it is within the operators’ control. Cable operators have contended that 30 days advance notice is impractical when the service change happens because the cable operator and programmer cannot agree to terms for carriage and negotiations fail during the last 30 days of a contract. In response, the FCC is seeking comment on whether it should amend §76.1603(b) of its rules to make clear a cable operator must provide notice “as soon as possible” rather than 30 days in advance when retransmission consent or program carriage negotiations between a cable operator and a broadcaster or programmer fail during the last 30 days of a contract. It also seeks comment on whether subsection (c) of that rules should be modified to require that notice of rate or service changes—regardless of whether those changes are due to failed carriage negotiations—be provided by cable operators to LFAs only if required by an LFA. The FCC also proposes various technical changes intended to “clean up” §§76.1601 and 76.1603 of its rules.
Moving on to the spectrum items, the first item responds to the MOBILE NOW Act, which requires the FCC and the Department of Commerce to make available new spectrum for mobile and fixed wireless broadband use and evaluate whether commercial wireless services and federal incumbents could share use of spectrum between 3.1 and 3.55 GHz. The FCC now proposes to clear the 3.3-3.55 GHz band of existing non-federal users by removing the non-federal secondary radiolocation and amateur allocations in the 3.3-3.55 GHz band and relocating incumbent non-federal users out of the band. It seeks comment on:
- Relocation options and transition mechanisms for incumbent non-federal users, either to the 3.1-3.3 GHz band or to other frequencies;
- How to ensure that non-federal secondary operations in the 3.1-3.3 GHz band will continue to protect federal radar systems; and
- How to prepare the band for possible future shared use between commercial wireless services and federal incumbents, potentially making as much as 250 megahertz of spectrum available for flexible use, including 5G.
The second spectrum item addresses the use of the 5.9 GHz band (5.850-5.925 GHz). For the past two decades, this band has been reserved for use by Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), a service in the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) designed to enable vehicle-related communications. However, the service has evolved slowly and has not been widely deployed. So, the FCC is proposing to take a fresh look at the 5.9 GHz band rules to ensure the spectrum supports its highest and best use. Under the FCC’s proposal, the upper 30 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band would continue to be dedicated to current and future ITS needs for transportation and vehicle safety-related communications, while the lower 45 megahertz of the band would be rededicated for unlicensed operations like Wi-Fi, which would be subject to all of the general Part 15 operational principles in the Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) rules. The FCC also propose to revise the current ITS rules for the 5.9 GHz band to permit Cellular Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X) operations in the upper 20 megahertz of the band (5.905-5.925 GHz).
The FCC will also consider a broadcast item and three enforcement items.
In closing his blog, the Chairman said: “With Thanksgiving a week away, I'll close by thanking all of the Commission staff for their outstanding work on our December agenda—and indeed, all year long. I've said repeatedly that the Commission's top-notch staff is our greatest asset. They do the heavy lifting that makes the lives of the American people better in meaningful ways. A cornucopia of gratitude to them, and here's wishing everyone a happy start to the holiday season.”
Since this is the last Checking In @the FCC for 2019, I thought I’d echo the Chairman’s sentiment by expressing my own appreciation to all the FCC staffers who helped me out during the year, patiently answering my questions and reassuring me that yes, I was right, the order had not yet been published in the Federal Register. And of course, I’d like to thank all our blog readers for their support during the year and extend Inteserra’s best wishes for the new year and beyond.