Wheeler Says FCC Will Act on Data Roaming, Mobility Fund Phase II by End of this Year

September 20, 2016–FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced today that he expects FCC action by the end of this year on a data roaming notice of proposed rulemaking and an item related to Phase II of the Mobility Fund, and he reiterated that movement is also expected in that timeframe in the agency’s business data services  proceeding. Mr. Wheeler’s remarks came in a keynote speech this afternoon at the Competitive Carriers Association’s 2016 Annual Convention in Seattle.

Mr. Wheeler said the FCC’s 2011 data roaming order “was a significant step to preserve roaming for the Internet age, but our roaming rules are due for a review.

“In the past two years, multiple providers have filed formal complaints and requests for mediation alleging that data roaming rates offered by larger providers are commercially unreasonable,” he added. “Because of high rates, we know that some smaller providers have” imposed restrictions on customers’ data traffic, he added. “The Commission has helped successfully mediate specific roaming disputes, but there are reasons for considering further action,” Mr. Wheeler said. He noted that the current framework for voice roaming is “just and reasonable” while the standard for data roaming is “commercially reasonable,” and that the FCC committed in its open Internet order to revisit the data roaming regime.

CCA, he said, has asked the Commission to impose uniform roaming standards.

“We’ve heard you, and we’re ready to act,” the Chairman said. “Before the year’s over, I plan to ask my fellow Commissioners to adopt a notice of proposed rulemaking on the Commission’s data roaming framework,” he said, drawing applause. “Tackling this issue will allow the Commission to provide greater certainty in the marketplace, and promote consumer benefits and competition.”

Mr. Wheeler also said that he wants the Commission to move to help spur broadband deployment in rural areas. He noted that the FCC in 2011 reformed its Universal Service Fund rules, including by creating the Mobility Fund. “The Commission is now working on moving forward on Mobility Fund II by the end of this year,” he said.

“First, we need to identify where there is actually no 4G LTE coverage,” he said.  He also said that the FCC’s record in measuring wireless coverage in rural areas has been “spotty.”

Mr. Wheeler noted that the Commission has relied on third-party data collection and utilized census block-level information, which he said “wasn’t granular enough,” particularly in rural areas. Now, he said, the agency plans to rely on data submitted to the agency twice a year in Form 477. The data, he said, “allows the Commission to create a significantly more detailed picture of actual wireless coverage within the census block. So instead of generalities … we can drill deeper to see if there’s coverage here, but not coverage there.”

Mr. Wheeler said that the FCC this month plans to issue a public notice detailing an analysis of the data from Form 477 filings.  “The main takeaway is that there is a clear need for Mobility Fund,” he said. “The data confirms what everyone knew from experience – that significant LTE coverage gaps still exist throughout America. Excluding Alaska, 11% of the nation’s road miles have no 4G LTE coverage at all, including no subsidized coverage.”

He said that 16% of the square miles of the U.S. don’t have LTE coverage or have only subsidized coverage, while 1.4 million Americans have no LTE access and 1.7 million have access only to coverage that is subsidized. Mr. Wheeler stressed that “if the first key to the Mobility Fund’s future is better measurement, the second key is using this new data to make sure that our investments are properly focused, and that that focus is clear: unserved areas.”

He said he agrees with the “Walden rule” that “says that we should not use … ratepayer funds to support service in an area that is served by an unsubsidized provider.”  “Although the idea of ‘non-duplication’ is clearly a settled policy principle, it raises very real challenges,” he acknowledged, adding that “we recognize that there has been reliance on these subsidies for the provision of duplicated services. We can’t just go cold turkey, but we need … a responsible phase-out period, and 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.”

Mr. Wheeler also stressed the importance to wireless carriers of more spectrum, backhaul, and  infrastructure siting.

 Regarding the second issue, he reiterated, “Before the end of this year, I will present the Commission with a reform proposal that will tackle this issue and encourage innovation and investment in what we now call business data services, while ensuring that lack of competition in some places cannot be used to hold back wireless coverage. He also stressed that with 5G services expected to require a 10-fold or greater increase in cell sites, being able to deploy equipment is crucial. One way to ensure that occurs “is to tell the story of 5G,” including its ability to enable smart energy grids, safer transportation, and better health care, Mr. Wheeler said. He also said that the public and government officials must understand that without additional antennas, those benefits will be curbed.

“Now make no mistake about it: localities play a vital role in the siting process, and they have important and legitimate rights, but those rights don’t extend to blocking a national broadband pathway,” he said. “Given the importance of the ubiquitous expansion of 4G and the rollout of 5G to the economic future of this nation, it is not reasonable for localities to view cell site deployment as a potential new revenue stream, which is something that we’re seeing far too often. It is not reasonable for cities to ‘franchise’ their siting to a third party, who acts as a gatekeeper.

“For our part, the Commission is united in its commitment to cutting red tape and facilitating siting. We’ve streamlined our environmental and historic preservation rules, we’ve tightened our ‘shot clock’ for siting application reviews, and there is bipartisan commitment to do more as warranted,” Mr. Wheeler added. “Both of my Republican colleagues, for instance, have recently agreed that where states or localities are imposing fees that are not ‘fair and reasonable’ for access to local rights of way, the FCC should step in and preempt them.”

However, the Chairman did not read this additional line from the prepared text of his speech, “We shouldn’t be afraid to use all of our authority under the Communications Act to address unreasonable local barriers.” 

Mr. Wheeler drew praise today from Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn for his Mobility Fund Phase II remarks.  Industry players praised his data roaming comments, but some were more cautious when commenting on his announcement on the Mobility Fund. One expressed concern about the Chairman’s goal of not providing duplicative USF support.

In a speech at today’s CCA show following Mr. Wheeler’s, Ms. Clyburn noted that she has called on the Commission to move forward on Phase II of the Mobility Fund for years and she said she was pleased by the Chairman’s announcement. “That deserves a round of applause,” she said.

“As the Chairman noted, there are significant coverage gaps throughout America, demonstrating a continued need for Universal Service support.  We welcome the Chairman’s invitation to get this right,”  CCA President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Berry said in a statement. “In addition to USF, another leg of the competitive stool is the ability for consumers to connect wherever they work, live or travel.  CCA reiterates its commitment to continued engagement with the Commission to shape data roaming policies and facilitate competitive arrangements to better serve consumers.  Alongside this reform, CCA is pleased the Chairman has committed to fixing the broken Business Data Services market by the year’s end.  This proceeding has languished for over 12 years, 4280 days and now is the time to complete it as carriers begin to deploy next generation networks.  Finally, we support the Commission’s efforts to institute clear siting policies to ease burdens related to physical infrastructure buildout.”

Scott Bergmann, vice president-regulatory affairs for CTIA, said in a statement, “With more than 99% of Americans having access to 4G LTE, the U.S. is the world’s leader in deployment. To maintain and enhance next-generation wireless networks in rural areas, CTIA is encouraged by the Chairman’s commitment to creating a permanent Mobility Fund to reach all Americans. We look forward to working with the Commission on this important matter.” 

“We look forward to seeing all of the details regarding Mobility Fund II in the coming months,” said Grant Spellmeyer, VP-federal affairs & public policy for United States Cellular Corp., in a statement. “We agree with Chairman Wheeler that any phaseout of existing support in rural areas must be done in a measured and fair way that recognizes the ongoing need to operate networks in rural areas that were built in reliance on USF funding.”

During a session later in the day at the CCA show, Hu Meena, president and CEO of C Spire Wireless, Inc., took issue with the goal of only providing support where LTE service is not being provided. “I don’t know what’s wrong with having multiple choices out in the rural areas,” he said. “We need multiple carriers in rural areas offering, at a minimum, LTE services.” But Mr. Meena said he was happy with the FCC’s planned data roaming review, saying, “It’s time for the FCC to step in and do something about that.”

Michael Prior, president and CEO of ATN International, Inc., said Mr. Wheeler “raises a good point about, you know, what’s your end goal.” He added, “You have to be mindful of the fact that you’ve got a limited sum of money.” He added that Connect America Fund support should be “more technologically agnostic.”

I was very pleased by the Chairman’s comments,” said Slayton Stewart, CEO of Carolina West Wireless, Inc., while adding, “The devil’s always in the details.”

In her CCA speech, Ms. Clyburn also acknowledged that gathering meaningful deployment data can be difficult, and she said the Form 477 data “is the best method we have now.” However, she said she is open to other suggestions. Ms. Clyburn also noted that the FCC plans to act in its BDS proceeding, saying she hopes it will help smaller wireless carriers.

On another topic, the Commissioner noted the agency has also has worked to modernize its Lifeline rules, saying she heard concerns expressed by smaller providers with the eligible telecommunications provider framework. “So I am hopeful that this and other reforms address the bulk of the concerns you may have had previously with the program and that your company will soon participate in Lifeline,” she said.

During another speech this afternoon, Neville Ray, executive vice president and chief technology officer of T-Mobile US, Inc., said his carrier has been busy with 5G trials and said it is eager to reach roaming agreements with smaller providers to expand its LTE footprint. – Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily