September 22, 2016 —
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told an audience that the FCC is taking concrete steps to foster competition where it exists in rural areas and subsidize service in rural areas, which lack service, in his keynote at the Competitive Carriers Association’s annual conference in Seattle this week.
“At the FCC, we want to protect competition where it exists, and promote competition where it may not be fulsome,” Wheeler said. “While nurturing competition is always going to be option A for maximizing consumer benefits, that is not an option in many parts of the country. Indeed, many rural areas do not have access to robust rural broadband at all.”
Wheeler spoke about how important roaming was to fostering competition in the wireless industry in the 1980s, especially making it possible for smaller, rural carriers to survive. The commission tried to bring roaming into the broadband 4G data era in 2011 but not everyone has been pleased with the results.
After received multiple complaints about high rates charged by larger carriers, Wheeler is going to call on the commission to adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Commission’s data roaming framework by the end of the year.
“There are currently two roaming frameworks; a ‘just and reasonable’ standard for voice roaming and a ‘commercially reasonable’ standard for data roaming,” Wheeler said. “CCA has been vocal calling on us to apply uniform roaming standards across voice and data services. We’ve heard you, and we’re ready to act.”
Wheeler also noted that rural areas exist where theirs is still no 4G LTE wireless coverage. Excluding Alaska, he said, 11 percent of the nation’s road miles have no 4G LTE coverage at all, including no subsidized coverage. All told, 550,000 miles of roads are unserved.
“We now know that 16 percent of all square miles have no LTE coverage or only subsidized coverage. And 1.4 million Americans currently have no access to LTE coverage at all, and 1.7 million live in areas where the only LTE coverage relies on a subsidy,” Wheeler said.
The commission reoriented the Universal Service Fund from subsidizing voice service to data services in 2011 through the creation of the Mobility Fund. As the commission moves forward with Phase II of the Mobility Fund by the end of this year, it will use new, more specific, data targeting areas without LTE coverage, which need subsidies.
“If the first key to the Mobility Fund’s future is better measurement, the second is using this new data to make sure our investments are properly focused, and that focus is clear: unserved areas,” Wheeler said. “As we’re gearing up for 5G, we can’t consign parts of the country to second-class digital citizenship by settling for 3G service.
Wheeler said the commission realizes there has been reliance on these subsidies for the provision of duplicated service, which must be phased out.
“That’s why the third big challenge for the Mobility Fund is going to be phasing out support in a way that is fair to those who have been receiving universal service funding in duplicative situations,” he said. “But let’s be clear: the FCC’s mandate is to support service where there is none, and diverting dollars from that purpose is not in the long-term public interest.