What will the FCC be tackling next?
Chairman Pai’s theme for the first meeting of 2020 is “Kicking Off the New Year in a Big Way.” (scheduled for, January 30, 2020). He notes that “[f]or the fourth year running, my biggest New Year's resolution at the office was to work to bridge the digital divide and provide more Americans digital opportunity. With the Commission's January agenda, we're set for a great start toward achieving that goal.” The centerpiece of the agenda is, therefore, an order that would adopt final rules for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that the FCC considered at its August meeting. Rounding out the unusually short agenda is an item updating the FCC’s wireless hearing aid compatibility rules, and changes to its video relay service and TV station rules. Let’s start with the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
Rural Digital Opportunity Fund
As proposed, the Fund will provide up to $20.4 billion over the next decade to support the deployment of up to gigabit speed broadband networks in areas that lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service. Funding would be awarded through a multi-round, descending-clock reverse auction, the same type of auction used to award CAF II funding in 2018. Funding would be awarded in two phases: Phase I would allocate up to $16 billion for support targeting census blocks that FCC data show are clearly unserved by 25/3 Mbps broadband service; Phase II would allocate at least $4.4 billion for unserved locations in partially served census blocks and areas not won in Phase I. To encourage the deployment of networks that will stand the test of time, including those providing gigabit connections, the order would:
- Increase the minimum speed to 25/3 Mbps from the 10/1 Mbps used in the CAF II auction;
- Prioritize support for services with faster speeds and low latency;
- Specify that, once the reverse auction hits the clearing price, support would be allocated in each area to the bidder in the faster speed tier when there is more than one bid to serve that area;
- Require winning bidders in Phase I to offer the supported broadband and voice service to all eligible homes and small businesses within the awarded areas as later identified by the FCC; and
- Prioritize support going to areas entirely lacking even 10/1 Mbps broadband as well as rural Tribal areas.
Hearing Aid Compatibility (HAC) Rule Update
The FCC’s HAC rules ensure that tens of millions of Americans with hearing loss have access to the same types of technologically advanced wireless handsets as those without hearing loss. Both manufacturers and service providers are required to make available handsets that meet specified technical criteria. The current rules are based on a 2011 standards document from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI); however, those standards were updated in 2019. So, the FCC is proposing to incorporate the 2019 ANSI Standard into its rules.
The proposal would, after a two-year transition, require use of the 2019 ANSI Standard and extend the FCC’s current volume control deadline to coincide with the start of exclusive use of the 2019 standard. During the transition period, new handset models could be tested for certification using either the 2011 or 2019 ANSI Standards. The Notice also: (1) proposes to update and streamline the current labeling requirements and remove unnecessary or superseded rule provisions; and (2) seeks comment on ways to simplify and update the HAC rules.
Video Relay Service (VRS)
VRS enables people with hearing or speech disabilities who use American Sign Language (ASL) to employ video equipment to communicate with voice telephone users. In 2017, the FCC established a pilot program allowing authorized VRS providers to route some VRS calls to communications assistants (CAs) working at home, rather than at call centers. Based on the success of that pilot program, the proposed order would permanently authorize VRS providers to let CAs working at home handle VRS calls, as long as the provider meets the applicable personnel, technical, and environmental standards. Among other things, CAs would be allowed to work at home if they have three years of sign-language interpreting experience (instead of the three years of VRS experience required for the pilot program).
TV Station Notification Rules
FCC rules currently require cable operators and satellite television providers to give written notice to local broadcast television stations before taking certain actions such as commencing service in a market or deleting or repositioning a station. Currently, these notices must be provided to stations by paper delivery, such as mail, certified mail, or in some instances, hand delivery. The order will transition such notices from paper to electronic delivery via e-mail after July 31, 2020.
A short but sweet agenda to start the new year.